Warning: This post discusses the setup, and a few key ingredients of an enjoyable novel. Some might call them spoilers, but I think of them as teasers. Why not read my post, then read the novel, and decide for yourself?
In Jane Johnson’s novel The Secret Country, Ben Arnold seems like a normal twelve-year-old boy. He’s not an acclaimed hero or a seasoned adventurer. He's certainly never traveled far from the English village of Bixbury, where he lives with his father, mother, and two sisters. This is not to say that he doesn’t have good instincts, or for that matter, good taste in entertainment. For example, he fills his days playing with Daleks and Incredible Hulk action figures, and he reads noteworthy comics and graphic novels, such as The Sandman by Neil Gaiman.
Ben may seem ordinary, but like most of us, he has a dream. Each day he walks past the local pet store, and peers into the window, hoping against hope that Mr. Dodd has not yet sold his advertised “Rare Mongolian Fighting Fish.” Ben’s father may earn a meager salary as a reporter for the local newspaper, but he’s agreed to pay Ben additional allowance in return for extra chores. Ben’s mother also encourages his dream, agreeing that he can keep a fish tank in the house. “Looking after other creatures teaches us responsibility,” she tells him. Finally, the great day comes when Ben accumulates sufficient money for his purchase, and he hurries off to Mr. Dodd’s Pet Emporium.
Ben’s heart leaps when he sees his beloved fish are still there. He gets in line, and hopes that none of the other customers snap them up before he can. He can only think of bringing them home, where his awful uncle Aleister and his father are setting up his cousin Cynthia’s former fish tank. Unlike Ben, she never learned to care properly for her fish. But then, her fish were even more aggressive than Mongolian fighting fish. For she used to keep Piranhas, and one by one, the number of fish in her tank lessened, until the final one also vanished. (No one, not even Cynthia, has offered Ben a satisfactory explanation as to how the final piranha ate itself).
When something catches Ben’s jacket, he notices that a cat has reached through its cage, and captured the fabric in its claws. As Ben tries to free himself, the cat informs him, in no uncertain terms, “There’s no way you’re leaving this shop without me, sonny.” Not only does a talking cat seem unreal, and thus hard to take seriously, but also Ben is unwilling to readily relinquish his dream. After all, he's worked hard, and saved for a long time, to purchase those fish. So the cat asserts that the fish aren’t really rare, they aren’t exotic, and they don’t fight. He reasons, begs, and pleads with Ben, until he finally convinces the boy to purchase him instead.
When Ben decides to trade in his dream of “Rare Mongolian Fighting Fish,” Mr. Dodd doesn’t seem keen on selling him the cat. This seems odd, as the cat looks exceedingly ordinary, and no one, apart from Ben, appears to notice that it can talk. But Ben overcomes Mr. Dodd’s objections and purchases it. Then comes the difficult part: to explain to everyone at home why he purchased a cat instead of the fish.
In proximity to his new talking cat, everything changes in Ben’s life. He sees a TV news report of a unicorn that gallops through Lords Cricket Grounds, interrupting a test match. He picks up an injured dragonfly, only to discover that it’s a wood sprite. And later, when his awful uncle Aleister takes him, his sister Ellie, and his wife and daughter along to meet with a rich client, Ben discovers a dragon in her backyard. (The woman is upset that the advertised “Garden Incinerator” is sickly, and not performing as promised).
As each new day passes, Ben’s eyes are opened to magical aspects of this world that he had not previously guessed existed. He learns that this magic has seeped into his world from a realm called Eidolon, where extinct animals such as dinosaurs and sabre-tooth tigers exist alongside fantastic creatures like centaurs and goblins. Through removing these animals and selling them in our world, Mr. Dodd and Uncle Aleister are robbing Eidolon of its the magical essence, and condemning these marvelous creatures to drastically shortened lives during which they will grow weaker and sicker until they eventually waste away.
In Mr. Dodd’s Pet Emporium, Ben could have freed himself from the cat. He could have refused to acknowledge a talking cat, consider its arguments, or feel sympathy for it. Instead, Ben allows his preconceptions about the world to be overturned. He meets each new day with a willingness to battle his fears and misgivings, and works hard to do right by each new animal (or creature) he meets. In so doing, he learns the responsibility his mother promised, and becomes the type of hero we all yearn to be.