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The Vaster Wilds


The Vaster Wilds

On a recent trip to the Shenandoah Mountains and Monticello, a few moments of vacation time came together for me in a weird space: the plight of the indigenous people in these beautiful mountains while Jefferson was building his personal Versailles (or rather when his army of talented but enslaved people built this gorgeous manse that he and his family occupied), and the plight of those on “Naked and Afraid,” the cable show that is consistently broadcast in marathon arrangements whenever I stay in a hotel room.

In no way do I mean to mock the plight of the indigenous people by comparing them to the insane machismo machines that populate difficult spots around the globe. But there is something about history and people roaming the wild having to braid their own sandals from tree roots that brings to a head the ways in which the original inhabitants of every land had to listen to nature and live within it, and for it, in order to survive. Before the white settlers arrived, there were millions of people around the world living on and with the land without giant corporations and Coca-Cola and the embarrassment of riches that is a Target store. How did they do it? Why haven’t the imperialists bothered to learn any lessons about how nature works and provides for us without greed or competition?

"This book is hard to put down. The language is exquisite, cautious, beautiful and hard-hitting. It picks you up in its current and pulls you along, giving you unexpected moments to rest."

All of these questions came to me again, couched in the story of an escaped maid from Jamestown during what was called the Starving Time, when many a new settler found themselves ill-equipped to handle the rough winters of the beautiful Virginia landscape. THE VASTER WILDS by Lauren Groff is a poetic yet precipitous story of one young woman’s escape into the wild and what it taught her about living authentically and knowingly.

In a recent interview, Groff, the three-time National Book Award finalist, had this to say for her inspiration: “American mythology, at least the way we’ve been force fed it for centuries, is a way of overlooking and justifying the extreme human suffering caused by colonization. I’m not interested in upholding these narratives. I’m interested in gutting or subverting them.” She makes good on that promise in THE VASTER WILDS, as her heroine learns that “[t]he colony broke down that winter; the rift between speech and action was vast. Though the wilderness is not kind in a human way, it doesn’t ever lie.” Groff manages to portray all the yearning, unfairness and stupidity with which humans waste energy as they fight against nature instead of living within it: “The situation for white people in North America is that our presence here is a result of astonishing evil.”

As climate change and corporate greed ravage our world and destroy natural resources, Groff writes with an incisive voice about one young settler’s journey. It’s a journey that harks back to old adventure tales but shares this human foible with a contemporary knowledge that this sojourn is executed hundreds of times a day, as humans think they can outsmart the natural world in which they were born.

As the heroine of the story relays her background, she is chased by other settlers for having committed criminal acts against others in the guise of coming down on the side of good. The reader is swept constantly into both the horrors of fleeing from a burden one cannot unload regardless of distance traveled past it and the thrilling and adventurous spirit, filled with hope, that celebrates each small victory in the wild. There is a sense that things will get better, before Mother Nature rises up with another obstacle for young, clumsy legs to bear.

This book is hard to put down. The language is exquisite, cautious, beautiful and hard-hitting. It picks you up in its current and pulls you along, giving you unexpected moments to rest. However, like the young girl’s journey, the tale sweeps back into gear, and you can do nothing but ride the current wherever the author twists it next. Another home run from the prolific Lauren Groff, THE VASTER WILDS gets an A+++++ from this reviewer.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on September 15, 2023

The Vaster Wilds
by Lauren Groff