From the opening sentence of Music For Tigers, author Michelle Kadarusman signals she is writing a book for thoughtful readers. “The first sound I hear in the forest at the bottom of the world is Vivaldi’s ‘Spring’ from The Four Seasons,” says middle grader Louisa. “There’s a movement in the violin concerto that’s meant to mimic the sound of birds. When I step off the bus in the Tarkine bush, that’s exactly what I hear. An orchestra of birdsong descends like musical rain from the Tasmanian treetops.”
In case any non-classical-music buffs should pick up the book, Kadarusman soon makes her protagonist a little more relatable. We learn that Louisa doesn’t want to spend her summer in the Tasmanian rainforest, living in the bush with an uncle she’s never met. But it’s a rite of passage in her family. Her great-grandmother started a secret sanctuary for endangered animals back in the 1940s, where Louisa’s mom spent her summers. Louisa’s uncle has kept it going. The sanctuary is about to be bulldozed for mining and logging development and this is Louisa’s last chance to experience it. But she’d rather be home practising the violin for her upcoming audition with the Toronto Youth Symphony Orchestra.
Once at the camp, Louisa finds her lodgings dirty, the soup watery, and her host, Uncle Ruff, possessed of a personality that fits his name. She comes face to face with a huntsman spider and a myriad of other creepy crawlies. One night, a pungent smell signals that Louisa and Ruff might be in the presence of a thylacine, the scientific name for the supposedly extinct Tasmanian tiger. This striped marsupial, which looks like a cross between a big cat and a pouched dog with a long stiff tail, gives off an odour when agitated. Soon enough, she begins to wonder how much weirder – and worse – this vacation will get.
A peek into her great-grandmother’s journal lets Louisa know she’s not the first one to feel disappointed in this remote “paradise.” Before devoting her life to the native animal inhabitants, great-grandmother Eleanor was dragged to the same spot (then a logging camp) when her parents were working there in the 1930s. Eleanor was devastated about having to leave her piano behind. The parallel flashback story is tender and fascinating, detailing Eleanor’s connection to the Tasmanian tigers (and other endangered marsupials) and describing how she cared for survivors long after the animal was deemed to be extinct. The journal provides Louisa with an avenue to appreciate her family’s legacy. It serves to draw the young girl into her surroundings – and eventually into a pas de deux with an elusive tiger.
In her third outstanding middle-grade novel – after Theory of Hummingbirds and Girl of the Southern Sea – Kadarusman continues to be a clear, insightful, and humourous guide to unfamiliar experiences and settings, and in this case species. She’s unearthed the fascinating history of an extinct animal and entwined it with a heartfelt story of a dedicated family whose good deeds have run up against the ever-encroaching, commerce-driven modern world. The dire ecological realities are spelled out by a secondary character, who gives eco-tours and discusses the ways we can protect and respect the rainforest and its original inhabitants, both human and animal.
But Kadarusman is not out to tell a didactic activist story. She’s concerned with character development: how Louisa shifts from her one-track musical mindedness to being engaged with the unique and passionate work that’s so meaningful to those around her, and how Ruff, a dedicated and accomplished vet, eventually comes to understand there’s more to life than marsupials. With a light touch, Kadarusman presents a family coming to an end of a chapter and instead of fighting the inevitable, using this last bit of time to strengthen their connections to one another before starting fresh.