In an alternate late 19th century, twelve-year-old Lucy Darrington flees a San Francisco finishing school and heads to the fictional Saarthe, an alternate Pacific Northwest where logging is the major industry within lands still owned by indigenous peoples. She steps off the train in Pentland, hoping to reunite with her father, a ghostologist whose work on the East Coast has diminished as the result of a scandal. Instead of a happy reunion, Lucy finds her father is missing and the region is filled with tension as loggers battle a plague, called Rust, killing the enormous kodok trees and thus threatening the primary source of income for settlers and First Peoples alike.
A mysterious old man tells Lucy that only the mythical and elusive Dreamwood—a tree out of legend—can heal the Rust plague. Sure her father was looking for the truth about Dreamwood, Lucy sets out to find him and immediately faces a perilous reality: Dreamwood exists (if at all) in the Devil’s Thumb, a peninsula suffused with mystery and magic, and from whose wooded shores few ever return.
Accompanied by Pete Knightly, who hopes to find a cure for Rust that will help his own deeply indebted family, and a Native American girl, Niwa, Lucy reaches the Devil’s Thumb. Here she and Pete face their own weaknesses, an environment hostile to humanity’s arrogant carelessness, a group of unscrupulous men also searching for Dreamwood, and His-sey-ak, the nature spirit who haunts the forest.
Clever, courageous, pragmatic, headstrong, and arrogant, Lucy yearns for friendship even as she is often careless of its demands. She is likeable, a character easy to root for, even though Mackey occasionally allows Lucy to stray into cliché: For example, although Lucy is warned that death awaits those who dare take anything from the forest on the Devil’s Thumb, she quickly yields to temptation, as does Pete. Could Mackey not think of anything less signaled and predictable to prove her main characters are prone to human frailties? This incident, along with one or two others, detract from an otherwise suspenseful climb to the story’s climax, which itself feels rushed, as if Mackey was running out of inventive steam.
Mackey does not excel at detailed, satisfyingly grounded world building. Instead she relies on broad and unsatisfying explanations of this alternate history, in which added (and thoughtful) details would have been welcome. Pentland, for example, is presented as the barest sketch, as is the topography of the Pacific Northwest, whose its dramatic mountains and volcanoes, mists and infrequent blue skies cry out for better exposition. And the mysterious old man Lucy encounters in the woods near Pentland? He is painted sketchily and exists, all too obviously, as a means to push Lucy in the direction of Dreamwood and the Devil’s Thumb; if mentors are going to be featured in a story, they deserve better treatment.
More pleasing is Mackey’s portrayal of the Lupines, a fictional Native American nation whose members understand the uses and dangers of the magic that suffuses the region and who—a refreshing plot point—have retained control of most of their ancestral lands. While I would have loved more participation in this story of Niwa and her people, the inclusion of the Lupines adds to the inventiveness of this alternate history.
Lucy’s quest contains enough that is creative that most readers will forgive the plot holes, thin secondary characters, and clichéd plot points to enjoy this supernaturally-tinged adventure/mystery.