In a country where mass shootings take place in movie theaters, playgrounds, schools and baseball fields, it’s not difficult to imagine gunmen storming a local zoo and taking out every visitor in their path. This is the horror Joan and her 4-year-old son Lincoln face in Alabama author Gin Phillips’ novel, “Fierce Kingdom.”
The novel opens on a breezy October day and unfolds over the course of three terrifying hours. Joan and Lincoln are wrapping up their afternoon in their favorite section of the zoo, the sandy, damp Dinosaur Discovery Pit, where Joan is watching Lincoln set up a battle between his favorite action figures. “She reaches underneath her leg and fishes out a small plastic spear — no longer than a finger — and it is no surprise, because she is always finding tiny weapons in unexpected places.”
In these quiet, contemplative moments, before Joan becomes aware of the grave danger that awaits them, when she still believes the sharp, popping sounds they hear in the distance are bursting balloons or fireworks, she reflects upon the wonder that is her son, and the gift that is parenting him. “She gives herself over to deciphering the workings of his brain: it is one of the bits of mothering that has delighted her all the more because she did not know it existed. His mind is complicated and unique, weaving worlds of its own.”
As closing time rapidly approaches, she wrestles Lincoln toward the exit. But he is tired and cranky, and like all parents, Joan must pick her battles. “It is possible that he will only cry more loudly, and she will give in and pick him up because he has actually walked quite a long way, uncomplainingly, on his small legs … Such a system of checks and balances — parenting — of projections and guesswork and cost-benefit ratios.”
When they reach the edge of a pond, they come across what initially appears to be a row of scarecrows. But then: “She sees an arm move. She sees a body way too small to be a scarecrow. A skirt, hiked indecently over a pale hip, legs bent.” When Joan spots one of the assailants entering a bathroom, rifle raised, the peril of their situation comes into sharp focus. She and Lincoln flee on foot to the far corners of the zoo.
Darkness complicates an escape plan. “The sun has dropped behind the treetops, and the shadows of the plants are long and emaciated under her feet.” Time and its passage seem like unreliable markers. “How long has she been running? Three minutes? Four? No time. Forever.”
An empty porcupine pen provides a temporary safe haven. “It is hidden back here, deep in the twists and turns of the primate house. It does not look fit for humans, and that is what strikes her as perfect about it.” Joan and Lincoln climb down and take refuge behind a boulder, camouflaging themselves in tall grasses.
Lincoln is growing increasingly agitated, exhausted and hungry, and Joan must find a way to keep him quiet while informing him, in a way he can understand, of their dire straits. “There is no telling what is going on behind his calm, round face. She should give him some kind of explanation. Some sort of plan … He likes to know what will happen.”
As they shift from one hiding spot to the next, two additional dilemmas confront them. Should they rescue a crying baby hidden in a trashcan? Should they join forces with other visitors trapped in the zoo, or will an alliance endanger them all?
“Fierce Kingdom” skillfully captures a genuine modern-day parental fear where mass shootings are commonplace. “She drops him off at school and, more days than she likes to admit, squelches thoughts of school shootings and men pushing their way into classrooms, teachers screaming, and how many children might get out the window before the gunmen break through the door … This is not rational, she has always told herself, but here they are, so apparently, her imaginings were not so unhinged.”
In an otherwise strong book, Joan may be the weakest link. There are a few vivid passages chronicling her unhappy childhood, but we otherwise know too little about her.
Her husband Paul texts her frantically in an attempt to gauge whether she and Lincoln are safe, but we’re not given much information about the state or nature of their marriage. Who are Joan’s friends and colleagues and why aren’t they reaching out to her once the media begins its live broadcast, if only to say, “Hey, did you hear what’s happening at the zoo?” Joan seems to be as much of a loner outside of the zoo as she is within it.
Joan assumes, contrary to the stereotype of brown or black evil characters, that the shooters are white men. Despite misuse of the term “Arabic,” (which is a language, not a people), it’s a refreshing observation. “She doesn’t picture them as Arabic – she has been wondering of course … They sound like young, obnoxious white men – aren’t they always young white men?”
“Fierce Kingdom,” is gripping and almost impossible to put down once begun. Phillips has crafted an absorbing novel about risk, survival and a parent’s instinct to protect her child while in the midst of a frightening though increasingly familiar scenario — the family-friendly outing that turns into a murderous rampage.
‘Fierce Kingdom: A Novel’
By Gin Phillips
288 pages, $25