Jack Fortune: And the Search for the Hidden Valley
I had not read anything by Sue Purkiss before, and this novel, set in 1768, turned out to be a treat. Jack Fortune is an energetic and rebellious orphan, who lives with his strait-laced aunt. This quickly leads to some great comic moments, involving buried rats and flying aspidistras. Exasperated, she sends him away with dull Uncle Edmund, a naturalist, who, it turns out, is uncharacteristically planning an expedition to India to revive his failing fortunes. And so the adventure begins…
The story is well-plotted and involves a quest to find a blue rhododendron in a hidden sacred valley. Purkiss has an assured story-telling style which swings along, passing swiftly over the long voyage to Calcutta, but lingering easily in scenes such as a key meeting with the Maharaja in his sky-palace, where they find him seated on the floor amid blue and crimson silk cushions. Jack, whose views we come to trust, sees him as an adult that he would never play a trick on or lie to.
Woven through this story that involves immense physical challenges, murderous betrayal, and unexpected moral dilemmas is another very satisfying thread that sees both Jack and Uncle Edmund overcome individual shortcomings and grow in emotional stature.
Perhaps most impressive of all (to this reader recently returned from hiking in the Himalayan foothills) is the wonderful evocation of a landscape, its plants and the paraphernalia of an Indian expedition. Purkiss brings us leeches, ice bridges, dripping tendrils on a jungle path, a mountain monastery and silvery glimpses of towering peaks—all without ever going there!
An informative afterword outlines what was happening in the burgeoning world of science and exploration at the time. A riveting read for me, and for Key Stage 2.