A Beautiful Mind

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Children’s Books

Oct. 8, 2021, 12:26 a.m. ET

By Jeff Zentner

It is clear from the start that something rare, nearly magical, is taking place in tiny Sawyer, Tenn., the setting for the early chapters of “In the Wild Light,” by Jeff Zentner (“The Serpent King”). A girl genius resides there, and her mind is the straw that stirs this drink.

Delaney Doyle looks like “someone who’s had to parent a parent.” She is the daughter of an opioid addict. She also has a photographic memory and a true dedication to science. Which means she is an oddball in school and elsewhere. Her only friend is Cash Pruitt, raised by his grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, since the night he discovered his own addict mother stiff between the commode and the locked door of “the cramped and squalid bathroom of our cramped and squalid trailer.” Delaney and Cash meet at a Narateen meeting (a support group for addicts’ teenage relatives) and instantly become close friends, a solace to both of them.

The big enchanting event in the novel, a turning point in their young lives, is a result of Delaney’s scientific drive. While canoeing with Cash on the Pigeon River, she finds an odd mold growing on a cave wall, takes samples, tests them and, after notifying prominent microbiologists, learns she has discovered a new antibiotic fungus, which is promptly named after her: penicillium delanum. A heady honor for a 16-year-old. NPR interviews her and a wealthy lady listening in Alabama who made her money in biotech offers her a scholarship to Middleford Academy in Connecticut, where she has funded a STEM program and state-of-the-art lab.

Delaney won’t go without Cash, and he is reluctant because of Papaw’s deteriorating health: “Now his appetite has moved to his lungs, which are always starved for air.”

Cash narrates “In the Wild Light” in a voice that is observant, evocative and poetic, which is perfect, as he is becoming a poet, and samples of his poetry are shared with the reader. He and Delaney take a Greyhound bus (high style for them) to prep school and arrive in a different world — look around, none of these new classmates have gone hungry or, by necessity, worn the same shirt three days in a row. The buffed and polished students are intimidating at first. Most won’t acknowledge Cash or Delaney as they walk around campus. But there are dear friends to be made at Middleford, too. It just takes a bit of time for them to find one another.

Zentner is mighty generous to his characters, showing us their range of emotions and thoughts and dreams. Cash and Delaney are both given to brief, aphoristic comments that provide added insight into who they are.

Cash: “When you grow up with ugliness and corruption, you surrender to beauty whenever and wherever you find it.”

“Some aren’t OK with not understanding everything. But I’m not afraid of a world filled with mystery.”

“I’ve always thought she had a strangely elegant beauty. Of something being pulled in each direction toward perfect and broken.”

Delaney: “Did you know the scent of mown grass is a distress signal?”

“Jellyfish are biologically immortal.”

“If you could know everyone who’s ever loved you, would you want to know?”

Zentner conjures a moving and rich novel about friendship, loss, kind strangers, the blindness so often present in the pursuit of love, and love itself. His protagonists have their eyes raised to the sky. “I pull off my shirt and press it to my face in the dark,” Cash recounts at the end of his first Thanksgiving away from home, “searching like a sailor, nose to the wind, for some hint of a green shore ahead.”

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