Summary from Goodreads:
It's an oppressively hot and sticky morning in June when Sterling and her brother, Phin, have an argument that compels him to run into the town swamp—the one that strikes fear in all the residents of Sticks, Louisiana. Phin doesn't return. Instead, a girl named Lenora May climbs out, and now Sterling is the only person in Sticks who remembers her brother ever existed.
Sterling needs to figure out what the swamp's done with her beloved brother and how Lenora May is connected to his disappearance—and loner boy Heath Durham might be the only one who can help her.
Sterling Saucier grew up in the small town of Sticks, Louisiana, a place full of forgotten faces and magic. When her own brother becomes one of those people the town has forgotten, she ventures into the town’s legendary swamp, and encounters a malignant force that’s stealing Sterling’s friends and neighbors, one by one. To get her brother back, she must overcome the foul magic and put it to rest forever.
In concept and story, Beware the Wild does extremely well, and really distances itself from other YA debuts. Sadly, however, the book lacks a finesse and maturity in terms of execution and writing that really puts Natalie C. Parker at a disadvantage. The author’s premise honestly blew me away, but the book as a whole didn’t come together as well as it might have.
Mainly, this book was not written as well as it could have been—not that it was written badly, either. Parker’s prose was functional and often had a nicely gothic turn of phrase, but the story progressed quickly and obviously, with the obligatory bad-boy crush and the best friend banter. Things popped up in the story quickly, without the languid transitions the southern swamp atmosphere might have warranted. I really felt let down that a story with so much promise in terms of setting and atmosphere didn’t exactly deliver those aspects to the fullness of their ability.
Time and again, I really got the impression that Beware the Wild was a book with a strong concept that simply wasn’t taken far enough. We see that with the author’s prose, which is good but not seriously impressive, and we see it with Parker’s characterization as well, particularly in Sterling, the protagonist. Sterling is an interesting character. She grew up in a small town with an abusive father who eventually left, and because of her rough childhood, Sterling is exceptionally attached to her older brother Phineas, to the point where the idea of him going to college in the fall is unthinkable, and she develops an eating disorder. All these things are a good foundation for a well-rounded character, but Beware the Wild doesn’t go into enough depth with Sterling’s personality. The eating disorder, for instance, is really kept in vague terms, and referenced a few times, in spite of the fact that it apparently had a huge impact on Sterling and Phin’s relationship, and actually was one of the main reasons that led to him running into the swamp to begin with.
More than that, Parker really missed out on an excellent chance to discuss sibling relationships, as Phin and Sterling’s love can be contrasted directly with another close brother-sister bond present in Beware the Wild, that of Lenora May and Fisher, Civil War-era siblings who ran away into the swamp together rather than be separated. The love Fisher and Lenora May’s love borders on unhealthy in just the same way that Phin and Sterling’s does, so I think it would have been amazing to see Parker draw more obvious parallels than she did, and use that doubling to comment on how family bonds can be taken too far, into dangerous places. Sadly, though, that doesn’t happen, and the reader is left to pick out these deeper connections on their own.
What I see in Beware the Wild is a very promising YA debut that, nevertheless, still leaves a lot to be desired. The southern gothic aura of this novel is unique, and the storylines provide the author with a lot of material to work off of. But the problem is, Natalie C. Parker never takes Beware the Wild to the next step, never breaks out of standard YA molds in any meaningful way. That was certainly disappointing, since I can see that this book wanted to be so much more than it is.