“Six months before Polly Cain drowned in the canal, my sister, Nona, ran off and married a cowboy.” The opening line of Aryn Kyle’s The God of Animals launches us into twelve-year-old Alice Winston’s world, and the landing is not a soft one. Gritty, vivid, and despairingly honest, the novel explores the struggle of growing up in a world where the obstacles are stacked against you.
Alice Winston lives on a ranch in Colorado and can do little to piece together her unraveling family: her father is disillusioned and burnt-out, her mother bedridden, and her sister rebellious and determined to find independence. The death of a classmate brings Alice face-to-face with grief and the concept of death, and in her desperation to be needed and noticed, she uses the idea of grief to gain attention from a schoolteacher. When her father begins teaching a young girl named Sheila and opens the ranch to accept borders, Alice struggles to find a balance between the child she still is and the mature adult that life seems to demand she become.
Kyle brings to this novel the heartbreaking voice of an adolescent girl. This voice is strongly developed and haunting in its honesty. Through Alice, Kyle reminds readers of the fact that no life is ever normal, and secrets – often the darkest ones – are all too frequently right in front of us. The brutality of ranch life is accurately portrayed, and it serves as a vessel which carries Alice along on her journey to becoming an adult.