“When We Were Lost” by Kevin Wignall is a superb young adult novel about a group of teenagers in a plane crash on their way to Costa Rica. They wake up as their plane begins shaking, and while the front half of the plane breaks off and crashes down a mountain, the back half of the plane slides backwards, and those kids survive the crash.
The story is told in third person narrative, but it’s all from Tom Calloway’s point of view. Tom’s parents died when he was young and the person raising him is less a parent-figure than an older roommate. When Julia, his guardian, decides she wants to go on a yoga retreat in Italy, she strongly urges Tom to go on the trip to Costa Rice with his classmates.
The reader understands from the start that Tom feels like an outsider. He goes to school, but he doesn’t make friends. He’s smart and talks in class, but he’s never really a part of any groups. Although he knows who some of the others on the plane are, he doesn’t know any of them well.
When the kids first realize that they are the only survivors of the plane crash and that they are in the middle of a jungle — where exactly they don’t know — and that there are no adults to take charge, one of the boys decides to be the leader. Joel is well spoken, but Tom and a few others notice from the start that Joel’s priorities are wrong and his decisions are not what is best for survival in the jungle.
Tom is disinclined to take charge because that’s not his personality. But neither is he going to follow Joel’s lead and obey someone who is obviously not a good leader. Wignall writes, “It was true, Joel struck him as someone who liked to lead rather than someone what was actually any good at it, but Tom had no desire to take his place.” Two of the other boys, Shen and Barney, kids who were considered “geeks” back in high school, are smart and understand what it will take to survive. Alice rounds out the core group who work with Tom to keep everyone alive.
And Tom, the outsider, the guy who definitely does not want to be the leader, becomes the head of the “smart” group, the group of kids who have the ideas and knowledge that it will take to survive in the jungle. The jungle is a dangerous place, and vipers, jaguars, rapids, and drug cartels are just part of what they will face before the end of the story.
Tom is like a reluctant super-hero in the sense that once he decides that no one else is going to die, he goes to great lengths to make sure that happens. But Joel sticks to his role as leader and know-it-all, even when the results could be deadly.
In many respects, Wignall replicates the real world with this small group of teens. Joel represents all leaders who have decided that they are the best leader, no matter what. In reality, they know nothing and make very poor decisions, but they are still seen as the leader. Others who may be much more intelligent and capable than the leader guide from the sidelines, and those in the know turn to them for information and advice. Others blindly follow the leader no matter what cockamamie plan he comes up with. There are those who are good at creating things, oars from backpacks and spears from tubes and a knife. Another teen who wants to be a surgeon and whose parents are doctors becomes the medical expert — at least to the best of his ability.
And Joel does what many male faux leaders do: he discounts anything that the female survivors might have to offer. Tom doesn’t make that mistake, and he has great respect for Alice and Kate. Kate knows a lot about survival, but Joel doesn’t think to ask others, especially girls, for advice. So this small group of kids is like a microcosm of our world, filled with fools and fiercely driven good guys. And unfortunately, in both worlds, the fools are often in the lead. It’s also about how when survival is at stake, what is important isn’t good grades, good looks, or even athleticism. It’s knowledge, listening to others, and not making rash decisions.
No spoilers about how it ends, but there are no “ah ha!” moments for Joel anywhere in the story. This is not a bad guy who realizes the errors of his ways. At all. And Tom? He’s a truly great character. He’s thoughtful and brave, and he does change by the end of the story. He’s realized that being a loner is not the life he wants to live.
For readers who enjoy a survival tale, this is a fabulous choice. It’s also a fascinating character study and just a great read. While it’s well suited for young adult audiences or even adult readers, there is nothing in the story that would preclude a mature middle grade reader from enjoying it as well.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Jimmy Patterson Books, the publisher, for review purposes.