Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Wild Life

Like Danielle, I had mixed feelings about Molly Gloss’s novel Wild Life. To begin with the positive, there were times in this book where I felt thoroughly engaged. It’s in part an adventure story, and the main character, Charlotte, does have some great adventures. The novel takes place in the west, somewhere around the Washington/Oregon border, in the early 20th century. It’s logging territory, and a pretty wild, uncertain place. Charlotte lives with her five children, trying to carve out a writing career. Her husband is not in the picture, but she has a woman who acts as nanny, which allows her to sneak off now and then to get some writing done. The adventure begins when the nanny’s granddaughter disappears in the woods. When search parties fail to find her, Charlotte decides she needs to go search for her herself. She takes off into the wilderness and soon enough gets lost herself. These passages were exciting. I could imagine all too well what Charlotte was experiencing as she struggled to find her way back to civilization.

The book has fantasy elements to it, but they don’t become part of the story until Charlotte gets lost: while wandering around the woods nearly starved to death, she comes across a group of large human-like creatures, frightening-looking but kind animals, who slowly adopt her into their community. The creatures’ lives are endangered by the encroachments of logging; they need space in which to wander and forage for food, but that space is quickly disappearing.

All this works pretty well, although the fantasy element comes too late in the book to feel natural and properly-integrated. The book’s structure is odd in one way — the pacing is wildly uneven — but quite interesting in another: it is a mix of several genres. The main story is told through Charlotte’s diary, but interspersed throughout are fragments of her fiction, stories that are sometimes based on her own life and so rework the material in the diary, and also Charlotte’s essay-like ponderings on what it means to be a woman writer. These materials reinforce each other by exploring themes and ideas from different perspectives, so we can see Charlotte’s life told through her diary and also transformed into fiction.

What bothered me, and I couldn’t shake the feeling although I’m not sure how fair this is, was that Charlotte felt unrealistic, too much of a fantasy figure. For her to be able to write as much as she does without a husband and with five sons seems improbable, even given the nanny. But even more so, her feminism seemed fashioned purposely to please 21st-century audiences rather than to capture a truth about the time period. I know that feminism at the turn of the last century was well-developed and that people were making arguments about women’s writing similar to Charlotte’s, but Charlotte seems just too perfect. She defies stereotypes about women at every turn, in the way she dresses and acts, in her conversation, in the way she treats men, in her writing. I am all for strong female characters who defy gender stereotypes, but I don’t want to be jerked out of the world of the story by the feeling that I’m being presented with an argument rather than a character.

All in all, it’s a pretty odd book, although not entirely in a bad way. The book’s various elements — the wild west, the fantasy, the feminism, the theorizing about gender and writing, the experimenting with structure — don’t quite cohere, but it’s interesting in parts, and it’s fun when the story finally hooks you and you absolutely have to know how Charlotte is going to make it out of the woods.

Wild Life

Wild Life by Molly Gloss takes readers to 1905 America in the Pacific Northwest when logging was tearing through forests and civilization was a small town on the Columbia River. Our heroine is Charlotte Bridger Drummond, writer of popular adventure novels, mother of five boys, and widow or abandoned wife (we never know for sure and neither does Charlotte).

When the book opens Charlotte is living a happy existence, escaping everyday to a shed in the yard to write while Melba, a woman she has hired, takes care of the house and her children. Charlotte is a staunch feminist and a woman with opinions who is not afraid to express them. She also tries her hardest to scandalize as many people as she can by her cigar smoking and riding around town on a bicycle while wearing men's pants. She is a stark contrast to Melba who is motherly and believes that cooking and cleaning and raising children is what a woman is supposed to do.

Not a lot happens for the first third of the book and I found myself disliking Charlotte quite a lot. She is so concerned about not being put down because she is a woman that she goes overboard in not allowing herself to exhibit typical female traits. When word comes down the river that Harriet, Melba's granddaughter, who was at a logging camp with her father, has gone missing in the woods, Charlotte makes light of Melba being upset and worried to the point of it being rather cruel and heartless.

When it becomes clear that Harriet really is missing, Charlotte decides she will go up to the logging camp herself and help in the search. Even though she has no experience in the woods, she figures she has written enough adventure stories that she can handle herself. Plus, even when she arrives at the remote logging camp, Charlotte still believes that somehow, even after the loggers have been looking for Harriet for a week, she, Charlotte will miraculously find the girl alive and well albeit a bit hungry and dirty.

But events don't work out that way and after several days of searching, Charlotte gets separated from the search party and quickly finds herself impossibly lost. But she has a compass and a little food and decides that she can find her way back to camp. Three days later and still lost, she has to admit that she was wrong.

Spring in the Pacific Northwest is a generally damp affair and while the season had begun drier than usual, this quickly changes. Charlotte has to contend with the wet and the cold and without food or any knowledge of what she might be able to eat in the forest, she comes to understand she is in rather dire straits.

But there is something else in the forest besides bears and dear and mountain lions. "Wild men," hairy "giants" or what we might call "Bigfoot" or "Sasquatch" are also in the forest. Charlotte comes across a family consisting of a mother and three children. She begins to follow them and eat what they eat. Eventually she becomes an adopted part of the family.

When I write it out like that it sounds stupid and hokey but it isn't. Being reduced to living like what Charlotte at first believes are simply gentle and shy animals, strips away nearly all the "human" from Charlotte. And while it is cliche to learn about what being human means from creatures other than humans, it is handled in such a matter-of-fact way without being sentimental or didactic that I liked this part of the book best which surprised me because I was expecting to not like it. Charlotte eventually returns to civilization a changed woman to say the least.

I liked the book but I didn't love it. The pacing is a bit off especially in the beginning. One thing I did really like about the book is the way it is structured. It is basically Charlotte's journal with news articles, pieces of stories Charlotte has written, character sketches, and various other documents interleaved. While Charlotte is lost in the woods she continues keeping the journal. The journal provides comfort, documentation, a lifeline, and an outlet for her voice. When Charlotte returns to the world of people, she is unable to speak for quite some time but still manages to continue writing. Charlotte's writing is the thread she holds onto throughout the story that keeps her sane, keeps her from completely losing herself.

After the book ended I found myself wondering what sort of person Charlotte would become next, how much of the wild would she retain? Could she, can any of us, keep in contact with the wild parts of ourselves? And if so, what would that mean? What would such a life look like? Any book that prompts one to think about such things is definitely worthwhile.

Cross posted at So Many Books