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In a village far away, deep in a valley, all the animals and birds disappeared some years ago. Only the rebellious young teacher and an old man talk about animals to the children, who have never seen such (mythical) creatures. Otherwise there's a strange silence round the whole subject. One wretched, little boy has dreams of animals, begins to whoop like an owl, is regarded as an outcast, and eventually disappears.
A stubborn, brave girl called Maya and her friend Matti, are drawn to explore in the woods round the village. They know there are dangers beyond and that at night, Nehi the Mountain Demon comes down to the village. In a far-off cave, they come upon the vanished boy, content and self-sufficient. Eventually they find themselves in a beautiful garden paradise full of every kind of animal, bird and fish - the home of Nehi the Mountain Demon. The Demon is a pied piper figure who stole the animals from the village. He, too, was once a boy there, but he was different, mocked and reviled, treated as an outsider and outcast.
This is his terrible revenge, one which has punished him too, by removing him from society and friendship, and every few years he draws another child or two to join him in his fortress Eden, where he has trained the sheep to lie down with the wolves, and where predators are few. He lets the two children return to the village, telling them that one day, when people are less cruel and his desire for vengeance has crumbled, perhaps the animals might come back...
Oz's slim but beautiful fable adroitly addresses the nature of hope and despair, filtered through a lens of societal trauma and conformity. In a remote village, all the animals from the wild fish, birds, and game to domesticated pets vanished many years ago. Now, the village's children barely remember animals, scoffing at the adults who talk about them, and the threat of Nehi the Mountain Demon keeps the villagers children and adults alike locked away in fright. When two children, Matti and Maya, think they spot a fish in the river, they set off on an adventure that leads them into the mountains, to a secret garden, and to a revelation about what really happened to the animals. Oz (Soumchi) presents many melancholy characters, from schoolteacher Emanuella (who lost her cat as a child) to elderly Ginome, living as an invalid since the animals vanished. But it's the conformity of the schoolchildren which they learned from their parents that presents the real horror of this story. It's through Matti and Maya's willingness to challenge everything that Oz channels hope. Ages 10 14.