Friday, April 19

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Reader Bee: Book review of The Vaster Wilds

By Karina Wetherbee.

The Vaster Wilds, by Lauren Groff

The solo survival story is a common narrative, usually with an endearing young hero or heroine at the center and most often set in a modern wilderness or a post-apocalyptic urban wasteland. But in the recent bestseller, The Vaster Wilds, author Lauren Groff takes the popular trope and goes back in time, all the way back to early 17th century colonial America. From the book’s opening pages, a frenetic pace envelopes the protagonist, a young servant girl fleeing the beleaguered Jamestown settlement. The overarching motifs of famine, disease, deeply divided class hierarchies, and the inevitable desperation and misery that accompanies such a life sit as a burden on her back as she runs.

It is clear that she is fleeing something sinister and dangerous behind the walls of the infamous and ill-fated Jamestown fort, but the girl never gets a name, and the details of her prior life are parceled out sparingly, reinforcing the stripped nature of her character as she navigates her vulnerable predicament in a dangerous and foreign land.

Akin to Cormac McCarthy’s similarly powerful dystopian novel, The Road, Groff’s book is both primal and stark but also manages to be deeply stylistic and poetic, with a fairytale quality to the prose. The reader is carried along on with the girl as she attempts a treacherous escape from layers of menacing troubles — culpability, convention, propriety, death and grief, and ultimately a corroded culture of piety.

On the surface, the story is a thrilling narrative masterclass, with Groff deftly utilizing the power of anticipatory fear in her storytelling. There is the looming threat of who might be chasing her from the fort, but there is also the uncertainty of the inevitable dangers that lay before her in the wild lands ahead. The girl is adrift in her prejudices and preconceptions of nature and the rumored savages who dwell there, and it is through the literal and figurative baring of her body and essence that Groff puts forth the nuanced heart of her remarkable book.

The nature the girl encounters is the kind of wildness that is fully separate from the daily fusses of humans. It is sensual, tactile, and elemental, and Groff is deftly aggressive in giving it a central placement in her story. She challenges the deeply ingrained idea of spiritual deliverance to counter the loneliness of human existence by penning a profound love letter to the planet, and the wild world, and the eternity of it all. Though the girl’s journey to existentialist joy is rough and turbulent. The final pages are shatteringly powerful and transcendent, and at its core the book is hopeful and uplifting, and a thrilling read.

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