The Not-So Great Outdoors – Madeline Kloepper, Tundra Books, 2019
“I have no idea why we have to ‘venture into the great outdoors’” this summer.” So begins the skeptical young narrator in Madeline Kloepper’s story of a city kid forced to vacation in the forest of the Pacific Northwest. When I opened the book, I shared her crankiness.
Why would anyone want to leave the inviting city scene from which her parents are about to exile her? Kloepper, a poet who sings the praises of the outdoors, takes care to depict the urban scene as attractively as she does the verdant world that comes next in the book. Local artisans sells their wares on the street, residents sit at lovely cafés, and a bearded guitarist passes the hat. I didn’t want to leave.
The book has a clever and convincing structure. On each page, the narrator expresses her frustration at the desolate environment of the not-so-great outdoors. The picture accompanying her complaints highlights the depth and beauty of the environment. So, “It’s not like there are any buildings’ is set against a majestic scene of towering trees. The girl’s father looks upwards, aiming his camera at a woodpecker, while she lugs her backpack on the trail and scowls at the ground. Her irritated realization that “There’s no electricity” shows her moping on a log while her parents and little brother enjoy a campfire and singalong. Then, midway through the book, the girl has a breakthrough, realizing that the dreaded outdoors has it amenities: “songbirds instead of street performers,” food cooked outdoors which tastes better than the fare in a downtown restaurant. The transition between the two mindsets happens in a subtle way, but seems to be transformative, as she and her family lie under the stars, pointing up at the night sky: “I don’t even mind that I’m missing my favorite show.”
Kloepper’s color palette is gorgeous and deep, with different shades of green and brown, marine blue, and a cranberry red for standout items such as the brother’s sweater or the family car. People have expressive faces and animals such as huge bears or smaller beavers become the equivalent of her city neighbors. The detail in small items—cooking utensils, flowers, blankets—adds realism to the story, although the humorous touch of a Sasquatch running in the woods implies that this is also a fable. Keep an open mind and you may discover new things!
It doesn’t take an open mind to wait for more works from this gifted artist, or to return to her earlier books. You can enjoy reading The Not-So- Great Outdoors in a sleeping bag, or sitting at a sidewalk café.