"The Vaster Wilds" | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider
It begins with a daring, frigid escape in the wilds—a girl flees for her life, from those who would kill her on the spot or return her to the pox-riddled colonial settlement to be publicly executed for her crime.
We meet this young, courageous survivalist in “The Vaster Wilds” a stunning new historical novel by Lauren Groff that’s certain to hold readers spellbound with its engrossing story, unique, admirable protagonist and period voice.
“In the tall black wall of the palisade, through a slit too seeming thin for human passage, the girl climbed into the great and terrible wilderness.”
The girl becomes one with nature as she runs, the trees and woodland creatures urging her on, the snow muffling her footsteps. She is a good “pious” child, one who followed readings from the good book when the minister addressed his congregation, a people now besieged with starvation and smallpox, weakened and dying from one or the other.
The clever girl has seen “…over the governor’s shoulder, a parchment, a map, a fat bay drawn to the east and a ladder of rivers like the sun’s rays…” It’s this life-saving route the girl trys to visualize as she tears through the woods in stolen boots that rub sore on her feet.
Back in Great Britain, before the ocean voyage to the New World, the girl had been adopted by a woman and her husband. She’d been a dutiful servant and a comfort to her mistress when her husband died. Her responsibilities multiplied tenfold when her mistress remarries a minister and the couple have a daughter, Bess, a special needs child born when the servant girl is only 4-years-old. Though the girl worked tirelessly caring for the child, when only a child herself, the girl didn’t mind—she loved Bess as if she were her own.
The girl knew other love too, that of the glassblower, a boy she met on the ship, a German immigrant, the two unable to converse spoke the language of affection, his touch so different from the forced entry she’d earlier been subjected to. That cruel coupling an offense she wishes to forget.
These memories and others flood her consciousness as she flees in the woods, trying to outfox the captor tailing her and attempting to ward off disorientation, hunger, injury, cold, solitude, wild animals, fear as she hurdles on by foot and water putting distance between her and the end of her. Another thought dogs her—one she’d sooner forget, but must live with—guilt she feels over an unmentioned sin, one God is certain to hold her accountable for in the fires of hell.
With writing that’s immediate and genius, readers will scurry along with the girl, feel her pain, and loneliness and admire her ingenuity and pluck, pulling for her to reach a safe place where she will finally be cared for and loved as she deserves.
Groff has created a marvel with “The Vaster Wilds” a book certain to have wide appeal, with its sympathetic, unforgettable character and breathtaking narrative.