Matt Smith’s life is turned upside down when his petrol-head father is sent to prison for illegal car racing. With the family’s main income earner behind bars, Matt is sent to live with his Nana, relocating from Hastings to Gisborne. The move brings with it a new school, a new teacher (the excellently named Mrs Snodgrass), new friendships, and a whole bunch of unexpected challenges.
Unfortunately for Matt, his Nana’s warning that “early friends aren’t always the good ones” couldn’t be more true of his two fast-friends at Oneroa Intermediate School, Jay and Cameron. The duo use Matt to help smuggle stolen goods out of school, and when Matt performs a random act of kindness, he’s later blamed for what seems to be a related crime.
Consequently, Matt is told he can’t go on school camp with his class to Auckland, and instead he attends a military-style wilderness camp with Cameron and Jay’s class at Lake Waikaremoana. As Matt negotiates making new friends – including a monstrous eel named Elsa – accusations continue to fly. Mr Klink believes the worst and Matt soon finds himself in deep water. Together with his new friends, he must use all his eco-science, detective and adventure skills not only to prove himself innocent, but to save the camp from potential disaster.
Another fabulous read by acclaimed New Zealand writer Des Hunt. I would strongly recommend this as a regular on every Intermediate school teacher’s read aloud list. I love how real and complicated Matt’s social background is, how his self-esteem plays into the relationships he forms, and how Matt’s story is woven into a rich, real-life setting in a way that champions eco-science and wilderness knowledge without becoming overbearing.
While I wasn’t so taken with a few of the secondary characters (namely Maddy, and her one-track-minded desire for revenge regardless of consequence), most in this eclectic cast of characters jump off the page, and the descriptions of Lake Waikaremoana and the surrounding area are stunning. I did wonder if perhaps Matt was a little too innocent – too much in the wrong place at the wrong time – though his shoplifting backstory and his father’s prison sentence do explain why he now has such a strong moral compass.
Perhaps the most satisfying part of Sunken Forest is its ending. It’s an ending that wraps-up not just Matt’s story, but many of the secondary character’s arcs as well in a satisfying, logical way – very much a credit to an experienced writer well in his stride.
Reviewed by Emma Bryson
by Des Hunt
Published by Scholastic NZ