“An electrifying novel about the primal and unyielding bond between a mother and her son, and the lengths she’ll go to protect him.
The zoo is nearly empty as Joan and her four-year-old son soak up the last few moments of playtime. They are happy, and the day has been close to perfect. But what Joan sees as she hustles her son toward the exit gate minutes before closing time sends her sprinting back into the zoo, her child in her arms. And for the next three hours—the entire scope of the novel—she keeps on running.
Joan’s intimate knowledge of her son and of the zoo itself—the hidden pathways and under-renovation exhibits, the best spots on the carousel and overstocked snack machines—is all that keeps them a step ahead of danger.
A masterful thrill ride and an exploration of motherhood itself—from its tender moments of grace to its savage power—Fierce Kingdom asks where the boundary is between our animal instinct to survive and our human duty to protect one another. For whom should a mother risk her life?”
My Thoughts: I finished Fierce Kingdom on the same day as the Las Vegas shooting. To read a book about a mass shooting in a zoo on the same day as those horrifying headlines/videos/images hit the news made the story cross from fiction to real life. The questions Joan raises about saving her son versus saving others are ones we should never have to ask ourselves but the likelihood of having to do so increase with every shooting. What a horrible way to live.
Like all tragedies, the story starts out almost idyllic. The descriptions of the park where Joan and Lincoln play are beautiful, establishing a lovely connection between mother and son, and providing a calm before the storm. This scene is key for building Lincoln and Joan’s relationship and establishing their personalities. It also provides a fantastic counterpoint to the alone time mother and son will later get.
For the remainder of the novel, tension ratchets as Joan struggles to remain hidden while seeing to the needs of her child. As in any situation where facts are not known, it is fear that drives Joan and determines her action or inaction, fear of the unknown assailants, their whereabouts, and their reasons for the shootings. As she flits from fear to worry to anger and back again, we see her struggle with the situation into which she is forced and watch how her emotions at any given second impact her decision-making. It makes for a fascinating cat-and-mouse scenario, especially because we really only see it from the mouse’s point of view.
Where Fierce Kingdom really impresses is in its morality debates between surviving and saving lives. More than once, Joan must make the toughest of decisions if she hopes to keep her son safe. But as time passes, and it becomes more of a struggle to keep Lincoln quiet, Joan also must confront the choice between her own safety and that of her child. All parents declare they would die for their children, but when faced with that actual life-or-death scenario, would we really do so? For a parent, it does not get much scarier than that, and Ms. Phillips captures the emotional turmoil Joan undergoes with aplomb.
Fierce Kingdom is probably not the novel to read right now. The Vegas shootings are too near to our hearts, involving too many people, and affecting families and friends around the globe. However, it is an important read. Through Joan, readers can wrestle with the same decisions Joan faces. It is almost a fire drill for parents caught in a mass shooting. Schools and places of employment perform lockdown drills regularly to practice for such scenarios. Ms. Phillips provides parents with a similar preparatory exercise in Fierce Kingdom.