Howling reads

6th February 1998 at 00:00
Henrietta Branford returns to an animal perspective for her forthcoming novel, Geraldine Brennan discovers

Henrietta Branford is still holding for the call of the wild. Having written a potential award-winning novel in the voice of a dog, she is working on a story told by a wolf.

In Fire Bed and Bone, which was shortlisted for the Smarties Prize last year, she could at least tread the familiar territory of the New Forest, having lived within reach most of her life after an early childhood in India and Jordan. White Wolf, to be published by Walker later this year, had to be done without a trip to British Columbia, where it is set.

Her research tour was done in a Southampton library, where she also discovered Norway and Iceland for The Fated Sky, her 1996 Viking saga for young adults. While waiting for the crucial voice to strike, she read PhDs on wolf society. "I've been struck by how like us wolves are," Branford says, "in the way they rear their young and even in their facial muscles."

She retuned her ear for human voices in her latest young adult novel, Chance of Safety, just published in the Hodder Signature series. It follows a pair of young runaways through a "two nations" dystopia in which Welfare to Work has been replaced by chain gangs of unemployed and homeless youths forced to repair motorways with radioactive waste.

The setting is the disturbingly near future, but there are parallels with Fire Bed and Bone, set in 1381 - the year of the peasants' revolt. Both novels see a corrupt established order crumbling through the eyes of narrators who have been pitched out of their comfort zones into outlaw status. In both, salvation comes from the dissenters' underground networks, which carries "wild talk; wolf talk" of freedom to the old dog in Fire Bed and Bone. (In Chance of Safety, as in 1381, there are "No MPs. No newspapers. No news".)

Also underlying both tales is Branford's absorption in "how power and deprivation work and particularly how the young and the very old are powerless". Although her books envisage change, they are pragmatic about how much might be achieved. In the old dog's universe, every creature has its niche: "Hens do very well as hens. They are not stupid. But they are no good at any but hens' business. Sheep are the same."

While Fire Bed and Bone is a universal fable for children and adults from about 10 upwards, The Fated Sky and Chance of Safety are intended for the 15-plus reader. Her young adult novels are aimed, she says, at teenagers who have not realised that books can be relevant to their lives.

She did not enjoy her formal education and left school at 16. She later trained as a youth worker but sees her writing phase, which began at 40, as her first sustained career.

She believes that her writer's ear was trained during a childhood of long chunks of solitude in which to read, wander in the woods and listen to adult conversations. "My mother read to us. As the youngest I was always hearing stories that stretched me. I heard all of The Lord of the Rings at an early age."

Alongside this rich imaginative life, she enjoyed the kind of country child's freedom that is impossible today. At 51, with three grown-up children, she is still at her happiest when climbing her favourite trees to watch for badgers.

'Fire Bed and Bone' is published by Walker Pounds 3.99; 'Chance of Safety' and 'The Fated Sky' are publishedby Hodder Signature Pounds 3.99

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