In the traditional survival story, a lone man battles the elements, slays predators, and emerges as nature’s conqueror. Books ranging from “Jaws” to multiple accounts of Antarctic exploration emphasize men out-competing nature; in Michael Punke’s “The Revenant,” a desire for violent revenge drives the survival of Hugh Glass. The subtext of such tales: Nature is merely an enemy to be subdued by man (or men), with vague backing from God.
Lauren Groff’s “The Vaster Wilds” is a radical disruption to the male-dominated cliche. In her wilderness tale, survival involves learning to become part of the vast networks of community that nurture entire ecosystems.
The young woman at the center of this glorious new novel is a teenager brought as a servant to a 17th-century Chesapeake Bay-area English settlement. As in 2021′s “The Matrix,” Groff departs from the contemporary to immerse readers in a fully-realized historical milieu. The girl has no name to call herself, never having been seen except for how she might be useful to others. Variously utilized as kitchen help, literal bed-warming pan, and nursemaid to Bess, the family’s disabled daughter, names are weapons by which she has been commanded. “She thought sadly of all her own many names, none of them had ever felt fully hers: Lamentations Callat, Girl, Wench, Zed. … But no name … seemed right … and she went on walking, still nameless, through the wilds.” (166)
We often speak of the resilience that grows from a survived trauma. Groff acknowledges her character’s troubled past without turning pain into spectacle. The girl’s time in England is sketched in the background as her agency grows over the course of the trans-Atlantic voyage to Chesapeake Bay. Her ostensible master and mistress’s greed and desire for novelty have driven them to seek their fortunes in America, but their lives of accustomed luxury have left them incapable of looking after themselves in their new world. Disease and starvation lead the entire colony to the brink of extinction. When Bess dies, the ensuing snowball of events cause the protagonist to flee, taking with her the tools — blankets and an ax, for example — that she anticipates needing.
Accustomed to the fears provoked in Christians by a punitive deity, and subject to the everyday violence justified by such a god, she is initially afraid, being outside the settlement. The Bible and Apocrypha are full of stories of those tempted by Satan’s natural world to leave behind Christendom. But the girl’s clarity about the real predators she fled sends her forward. Nature is not a malevolent enemy, nor a harsh taskmaster; it is indifferent, and the girl’s survival will depend on her ability to read the land’s realities and anticipate signs of change.
Her surroundings come alive in prose that lives and breathes upon the page. Ice floes on the river “struggle[d] against each other, moaning and squealing … a great pen of pigs” Unable to cross, she “allow[s] herself the luxury of despair” before accepting that the only way is to “move upstream” and “follow the bank until she could find a fording place.” As she learns to accept the land’s daily rhythms, the internalized voices of sin and shame that previously erected walls within her begin to fall away. Her physical body is not an abomination but a system that demands the meeting of its needs. Her journey through the wilderness is neither punishment nor metaphor. It’s the means by which she lives each day. And acceptance arrives as a “warmth come over her for the land, as hard and unforgiving and wild as it was.”
Survival, it turns out, is about paying attention, the slow accumulation of details large and small that anchor the self; knowledge is gained by learning to recognize those previously unseen clues and patterns. In many ways, Groff’s work is itself anchored to recent works by writers such as Elizabeth Rush, Suzanne Simard, and Camille T. Dungy that insist it is only in paying attention to the way things are and the ways natural systems are interdependent that we ourselves will be saved. Climate change does not care if some of us refuse to accept it. Our survival will not come by out-competing the climate (and thus destroying the environment) but in recognizing how we are part of various systems. It will not be changed by one person’s decision to procreate or drive or recycle and cannot be magically reversed.
But multiple individuals collectively noticing change and adapting to meet those new realities can alter its course. Groff’s novel is a 17th-century survivor’s narrative. Rather than Hobbes’s brutal “state of nature,” however, Groff imagines a natural world where humans adapt to its contours rather than conquer them. It’s not a panegyric to some perfect past but a trail map marking out an alternative route.
We don’t need a hero’s tale of domination and plunder to fix the environment. We need more stories of how becoming part of the natural systems that surround us may help us survive. “The Vaster Wilds” is a terrific addition to a developing canon of our continued existence.
THE VASTER WILDS
By Lauren Groff
Riverhead, 272 pages, $28
Lorraine Berry lives in Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @BerryFLW