Wild Life by Molly Gloss takes readers to 1905 America in the Pacific Northwest when logging was tearing through forests and civilization was a small town on the Columbia River. Our heroine is Charlotte Bridger Drummond, writer of popular adventure novels, mother of five boys, and widow or abandoned wife (we never know for sure and neither does Charlotte).
When the book opens Charlotte is living a happy existence, escaping everyday to a shed in the yard to write while Melba, a woman she has hired, takes care of the house and her children. Charlotte is a staunch feminist and a woman with opinions who is not afraid to express them. She also tries her hardest to scandalize as many people as she can by her cigar smoking and riding around town on a bicycle while wearing men’s pants. She is a stark contrast to Melba who is motherly and believes that cooking and cleaning and raising children is what a woman is supposed to do.
Not a lot happens for the first third of the book and I found myself disliking Charlotte quite a lot. She is so concerned about not being put down because she is a woman that she goes overboard in not allowing herself to exhibit typical female traits. When word comes down the river that Harriet, Melba’s granddaughter, who was at a logging camp with her father, has gone missing in the woods, Charlotte makes light of Melba being upset and worried to the point of it being rather cruel and heartless.
When it becomes clear that Harriet really is missing, Charlotte decides she will go up to the logging camp herself and help in the search. Even though she has no experience in the woods, she figures she has written enough adventure stories that she can handle herself. Plus, even when she arrives at the remote logging camp, Charlotte still believes that somehow, even after the loggers have been looking for Harriet for a week, she, Charlotte will miraculously find the girl alive and well albeit a bit hungry and dirty.
But events don’t work out that way and after several days of searching, Charlotte gets separated from the search party and quickly finds herself impossibly lost. But she has a compass and a little food and decides that she can find her way back to camp. Three days later and still lost, she has to admit that she was wrong.
Spring in the Pacific Northwest is a generally damp affair and while the season had begun drier than usual, this quickly changes. Charlotte has to contend with the wet and the cold and without food or any knowledge of what she might be able to eat in the forest, she comes to understand she is in rather dire straits.
But there is something else in the forest besides bears and dear and mountain lions. “Wild men,” hairy “giants” or what we might call “Bigfoot” or “Sasquatch” are also in the forest. Charlotte comes across a family consisting of a mother and three children. She begins to follow them and eat what they eat. Eventually she becomes an adopted part of the family.
When I write it out like that it sounds stupid and hokey but it isn’t. Being reduced to living like what Charlotte at first believes are simply gentle and shy animals, strips away nearly all the “human” from Charlotte. And while it is cliche to learn about what being human means from creatures other than humans, it is handled in such a matter-of-fact way without being sentimental or didactic that I liked this part of the book best which surprised me because I was expecting to not like it. Charlotte eventually returns to civilization a changed woman to say the least.
I liked the book but I didn’t love it. The pacing is a bit off especially in the beginning. One thing I did really like about the book is the way it is structured. It is basically Charlotte’s journal with news articles, pieces of stories Charlotte has written, character sketches, and various other documents interleaved. While Charlotte is lost in the woods she continues keeping the journal. The journal provides comfort, documentation, a lifeline, and an outlet for her voice. When Charlotte returns to the world of people, she is unable to speak for quite some time but still manages to continue writing. Charlotte’s writing is the thread she holds onto throughout the story that keeps her sane, keeps her from completely losing herself.
After the book ended I found myself wondering what sort of person Charlotte would become next, how much of the wild would she retain? Could she, can any of us, keep in contact with the wild parts of ourselves? And if so, what would that mean? What would such a life look like? Any book that prompts one to think about such things is definitely worthwhile.