This novel written for a middle grade readership defies categorisation, encompassing themes which encourage all readers to think about the way we treat our planet and the life forms on it. The unusual dual narrative takes readers on a year long journey in the company of Albi, the glowing cow boy of the title and Rufus, a twelve year old human boy with a heart-breaking back story. Georgia Byng has written a beautiful tale which transported me into the minds of two very different protagonists, leaving me with much food for thought.
The story begins with magical snowflakes descending from a cold January night sky and infusing the earth with a glittering of magical energy, some of which is absorbed by an albino new-born calf, Albi. In the opening chapter we are given an introduction to Albi’s herd of cows and through their voices learn about the sadness of cows and calves when they are separated as a routine part of the food industry. In contrast to the close maternal relationships exhibited by the cows, a human family living just a few miles away demonstrates the awful situation that arises from rejection and neglect of a child by his parents. Rufus Chumley is a twelve year old hunter who has learnt to survive independently since early childhood. He has been rejected by his affluent parents, his teachers and the other children at school because a metabolic disorder has caused him to grow far larger than his peers, resulting in complicated expectations and misunderstandings of his abilities. He lives an isolated life, shooting and cooking small mammals and dreaming of winning the Worldwide Hunting Association’s hunting competition in America to prove his worth to his parents.
These two narratives are intertwined when Albi responds to a magical sixth sense after eating milky white mushrooms, and leads the young bullocks in a breakout from the slaughterhouse owned by Mr Chumley. Rufus spies the glowing albino calf crossing a field in the moonlight and decides to run away from home, track the otherworldly animal and turn it into his hunting competition trophy. Thus begins an epic journey which takes the hunter and his prey on a journey across Europe and Asia, encompassing encounters with aurochs; visits to ancient sites and caves; and encounters with people who both love and exploit animals. The brutality of the traditional running of the bulls in Pamplona is shown in marked contrast to the treatment of cows in India.
The interconnectedness between all life on earth is represented in this story by the milky white mushrooms which infuse Albi with his luminescence and his intelligence and fill Rufus with self-esteem for the first time in his life, gradually changing the way he thinks about other creatures. The tendrils which connect all life forms and create ecological balance are surfaced in this magical tale which encourages readers to think about the way that industrial scale farming damages the environment. The power of kindness is shown as a superpower in the words of one of the mother cows:
The more you care about others, the stronger you get.Page 244
Publishing in January, a time when we are often encouraged to think about reducing the amount of meat in our diets, I think this story will encourage debate around animal welfare and meat consumption in upper key stage 2 and key stage 3 classrooms and I would highly recommend it to all school librarians. Aside from this, it is a story that I am sure will be enjoyed by many children who love animal stories and for whom it can sometimes be difficult to find books in this genre once they move beyond the early chapter books.
I am grateful to Uclan Publishing and Antonia Wilkinson for my review copy received in advance of publication on 5th January 2023.