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Marianne’s Pick of the Week: The Vaster Wilds

The Vaster Wilds book coverI must confess that I love Lauren Groff’s writing. It is transcendent. The language is always rich and time specific, truly making you feel that you are inhabiting the story’s time and place. Her works are propelled by what the characters are thinking and feeling rather than by the action or plot. Groff’s writing is more art and stream of consciousness (think Faulkner – but not as Faulkner-ish).

In her newest novel, The Vaster Wilds we meet a resourceful, uneducated 17th century serving girl referred to as Lamentations, Zed, or just “Girl.” She is fleeing the Jamestown colony and attempting to make her way to Canada, where in her imagination she will meet, marry, and return to Europe with a rich fur trapper husband. Keep in mind our fleeing girl has no concept of the size or vastness of the North American continent, only that she once saw the area pointed out on a map. She believes that the French would be more welcoming to her than the Spanish (if she had chosen to travel south).

As our heroine runs, we get her backstory: how she was born into a poor house, the daughter of a prostitute; how she was sold to a wealthy matron at the age of four first as entertainment and then as a caregiver for the matron’s child, Bess. We learn of the horrors of sea travel in the 17th century; the trials of women (which in some accounts do not seem to have changed much from back then); and the levels of depravity to which some will sink to when faced with extraordinary circumstances Traveling through the wilderness, “Girl” makes the best of her circumstances, ingeniously creating spaces in which to live (hollow trees are cozy and warm); foods to eat (grubs are delicious; spiders not so much) and clothes to wear (fluff from a squirrel’s nest is perfect boot insulation). Readers get a real sense of the toll that living outside for an extended time inflicts on the human body. Groff’s writing is visceral. I could feel the cold, isolation, and hunger the girl experiences, but I could also taste the earthy mushrooms, oily salmon, and tart berries she forages. The more fully a Girl becomes immersed into the natural world, the more she loses her language and becomes one with nature.

Fans of Annie Proulx or George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo will appreciate the way Groff tells this tale of survival.

As we come to the end of Girl’s journey, Groff concludes that “to be alone and surviving is not the same as being alive.” A lesson that applies now as well as then.

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