So I've just finished reading Wild Life by Molly Gloss and am feeling a little ambivalent about it. On the one hand it is a well written and thought-provoking story with a wonderfully independent heroine (I like smart female characters who show a little moxie), but on the other I thought I would never finish the book (and it is quite short--about 250 pages). It is the latest reading choice of the Slaves of Golconda, and I was very excited about the story. One of the reasons I enjoy readalongs (though my track record of late with the Slaves has been a little spotty) is being able to widen my reading horizons and read books that may well be outside my normal comfort zone. Wild Life is a novel that crosses genres as there is a sci-fi/fantasy slant to the story, and in this case it also deals with gender issues as well. There is a certain amount of stretching of the imagination needed in the story, but I don't mind that really. So, what's not to like right?
The story is presented as a series of journal entries by Charlotte Bridger Drummond, a feminist and freethinking woman living with her five sons in the Pacific Northwest in the early years of the 20th century. Charlotte's husband left one day on the ferry never to return. She could avoid the stigma of being an abandoned wife by claiming one of the bodies that frequently washes ashore but prefers to think of her husband alive somewhere and happy rather than drowned and dead. She doesn't manage too badly on her own, however, as she pens dimestore novels of spunky heroines who get caught up in wild adventures. She likes to think she might be the natural successor to her idol Jules Verne, but she realizes her work crosses the line from serious to marketable.
Charlotte spends most of her time, as much as she can anyway, either writing or reading, which is no easy task considering the number of literary and scientific journals that arrive on the ferry every month. Not a fan of cooking or cleaning and with a rather elastic sense of motherly guidance she leaves the more mundane domestic duties up to her housekeeper, Melba.
"My personal belief if that a woman's worth doesn't lie in the cleanliness of her house; and at the commencement of each of Melba's absences I always am determined on principle, to let the housekeeping pile up. It is Melba's belief, though, that a woman who neglects her home is unnatural, an abnormity more horrible than Frankenstein's monster, and on her return there is a particular look she will give me as she surveys the disorder."
When Melba's granddaughter goes missing from one of the logging camps her father very foolishly brought her to, Charlotte is determined to not only travel there to discover the circumstances of her disappearance (by the time word makes its way from wilderness to the town it is stretched completely out of shape and distorted) but also to give a hand in the search as well. Charlotte isn't just determined but she is downright stubborn. She is an unapologetic intellectual who is sure she can succeed where others have failed. But several days into the search, she also gets separated from the group and even her trusty compass can't help her find her way back so completely turned around does she become.
At first she is sure she can catch up with the group of searchers, but as the days pass, her food runs out and she becomes cold and wet, her hope dwindles. Alone and afraid she senses she is being watched and realizes she is not alone in the wilderness. Literally at the end of her tether she latches on to a family of, I'm not sure what to call them--creatures that are much larger than humans but not too far removed from them either. They have their own language, so are unable to communicate, and while they are somewhat wary of each other they eventually allow Charlotte to tag along until she becomes almost one of them.
Interspersed in the narrative/journal entries are snippets from Charlotte's writing, both her stories and feminist musings, as well as sketches of the various characters (both primary and secondary characters of the story) and also included are quotes from authors and Native American folk tales. Taken together it creates a mosaic of sorts throwing light on different aspects of the story. These diversions become meditations on 19th century life, not exclusively of the West but certainly particular to it. She asks the reader (in however roundabout way) to consider many different things--the role of women in society, preservation versus the necessity of the logging industry, how animals are treated and what it means to be humane.
"I wonder if we might more easily become like animals than animals become like humans. As a species, we human beings seem no longer fitted for life in the wilderness--have been weakened by centuries of civilized life--but there may yet be something inherent in our natures, some potentiality which wants only the right circumstance to return us to the raw edge of Wildness."
I feel like I should be in love with this story. Charlotte is a remarkable, if fallible, woman. She dresses like a man when she needs to, rides a bicycle and when asked if she needs a light (she smokes an occasional cigar) replies she never takes a light from a man. She's smart and ever ready with a quick quip, which rolls smoothly off her tongue (there were loads of wonderful lines I could have shared!). Gloss vividly describes the Pacific Northwest, making it sound lush and beautiful and creates an intriguing picture of a vast wilderness--one where you can walk for days and never see anyone else (do places like that still exist here outside of state parks?). For the first two thirds of the story I was totally engaged and knowing that Charlotte would become lost in the wilderness I couldn't wait for that part of the story to arrive, but once it did I think I became frustrated by the many diversions and meanderings. I like that she pushes boundaries and asks hard questions, but for me it also broke up the flow of the story making me feel like I was plodding along.
I'm still glad I read the book and think I will try The Jump-Off Creek by Gloss at some point, which is handily available at my library. Wild Life won the 2000 James Tiptree, Jr. Award. You can read more reviews of the book here or join in the discussion here.