Book Review: “The Vaster Wilds” — A Powerful Annal of Survival

By Drew Hart

To these eyes, Lauren Groff’s latest novel is her most accomplished yet.

The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff. Riverhead; 256 pp.

Around here, opinions are the order of the day — of course you know that? Let’s allow your F.C.* to serve up one that seems to be holding on well: that the novelist and short story specialist Lauren Groff is working at or very close to the top of her game … the way she has been for a while. Or is that more of a fact? The release of her newest effort, The Vaster Wilds, may demonstrate that; it is to these eyes the most accomplished of her longer works. An annal of survival, it follows the arduous path taken by a young woman in the deep forests of 17th-century Virginia — alone, lost, and bedraggled. Known primarily as “the girl,” she has fled the hellish English settlement she was brought across the ocean to — read Jamestown — in order to serve as a nurse to a hopelessly ill toddler, striking out in the unknown dark lands beyond it. She has her reasons for running away; they are revealed gradually, and can only be described — without spelling out too much — as horrifying. Yet what lies in front of her as she tramps further and further out of sight will prove to be equally frightening.

This is, first and foremost, a portrait of an ordeal, and the story tracks in practically real time, as the girl encounters endless challenges, many of which are life threatening. While some hurdles — cold, hunger, isolation, fear of bears, wolves, and native tribesmen — are to be expected, her journey is clouded with troubled thoughts coming from within her. Her dreams of the past haunt her; recollections of life in England, where she grew up destitute in a rude city — read London — rife with filth and plague, and of the harrowing voyage to America that nearly fails, are woven into the fabric here. But these are interrupted by her new reality in the endless woods; there are encounters with crazed hermits, crippling injuries, fires that won’t start, ice storms, delirious fatigue, the unsettling realization at times that she may be traveling in circles. Are soldiers following her? Does she have smallpox? Will she ever find the French lands to the north she dreams of living in? Or would she be best off by simply dying?

At once somewhat a lost and scared Snow White, as well as a fierce Natty Bumppo, our heroine battles on. You may find it to be a sort of an extended “To Build A Fire,” Jack London’s age-old survival tale, and though it could be argued that we could be put out of our misery here in shorter order, it is highly successful at its given length. The imagery is vivid and lyrical; sometimes it also can have the spirit of Cormac McCarthy’s fantastic, biblically violent Blood Meridian. The story is most assured; though our traveler is confronted with nearly unbelievable tasks — how does a poor city waif such as this learn how to hunt, to build shelter, to navigate? — they are rendered plausibly. Groff’s previous novel, Matrix, set in the medieval age, with a similarly brave leading woman, sometimes stretched credibility; this isn’t the case on this outing.

The Vaster Wilds is dedicated to the author’s sister, a decorated marathon runner — but the book itself is equally determined and impressive. And it’s just grindingly tough — you may find it best to read it during daylight hours?

Drew Hart – your *Faithful Correspondent – writes from Santa Barbara, California

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