(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Kim Barnes’s first book, In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country (1996), was awarded the PEN/Jerard Fund Award and was a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Martha Albrand Award. In this beautifully written memoir, Barnes recounts her unusual childhood at a remote logging camp in Idaho. The text chronicles her acceptance of, then escape from, Pentecostal religion. Throughout, Barnes depicts her parents and near relatives well, describes natural wonders in the wilderness around the Clearwater River, and inserts narrative vignettes that reinforce scene, character, and plot. Through telling the story from the vantage point of adulthood, Barnes honors the naïveté of her childhood self. The reader, like the narrator, finds joy in trailing an elk, exultation in Barnes’s faith healing, and frustration in the struggle between the consolation of religion and the need for freedom. Throughout, Barnes maintains a clear sense of unity and purpose, ending with her final escape into a “normal” life when she gets her first apartment in Lewiston.

Barnes’s second memoir, Hungry for the World, fails to live up to the promise of her earlier book. Though ostensibly about the five years or so following her break from her restrictive religion and family, Barnes’s sequel struggles to say something new. Barnes begins Hungry for the World at the moment her first book ended—with the new high school graduate in her first apartment in the city. The main part of the memoir traces her life through a series of failed jobs, friendships, and love affairs. Barnes emphasizes her relationships with men, particularly one with David M. Jenkins, a much older man who uses her for his deviant satisfactions. Though she sees David as a surrogate father in the way he understands the wilderness, when he pressures her into sexual liaisons with other men and women as a test of her loyalty, Barnes realizes she must leave him.

In contrast to the tight structural control and focus she aimed for—and achieved—in her first novel, Barnes’s goals in writing Hungry for the World seem murky and confusing. Certainly, she wants to show what happens when a naïve girl enters a tainted, secular world. In order to justify this premise, she must repeatedly privilege her overprotected background in the wilderness of rural Idaho. Again and again, she returns to the hunting areas around her childhood home, suggesting that she can escape her troubles only with the aid of the past. The men who misuse her in Hungry for the World become more manageable when she can take them into this wilderness. At one point, Barnes decides she needs to keep David from the city so he can become more like himself. In the wild, he loses his sexual perversions.

At the same time, Barnes wants to show how this same childhood world of religious dogma, judgmental parents, and isolation produces the problems she encounters in that secular world—notably within sexual relationships. Barnes feels that the controlling aspects of religion—the constant fear of damnation and judgment— encourage her to value the many varieties of male domination she encounters. She finds it too easy to let someone else guide her path through life, a habit left over from her religious past. Furthermore, she can take care of her men only by behaving like her docile mother. As a result, she falls victim to men who want her to behave in a proscribed way—most notably Tom, an early boyfriend who dictates who she sees and when, and David, who orchestrates her movements under the guise of love. Barnes could show how isolation can be both positive and negative and how religious fanaticism can produce undercurrents of passivity and regret as well as reserves of strength. Unfortunately, she does not seem to notice that she vacillates between two extremes. As a result, the reader keeps looking for a thread that will tie her two divergent ideas together.

Barnes does attempt to link her life stories together using a series of repeating metaphors and tropes. Her opening and closing scenes, for example, both feature descriptions of a large-scale fire that threatened to take over the small town of Lewiston during her childhood. In these scenes, Barnes fears being engulfed by these fires, but eventually relies on her father’s assured motions to protect her and the rest of the town from the outbreaks. Barnes uses fire throughout the text as a way to describe passion and lust; ashes seem to symbolize the end of passion as they float away in the wind. If a person can control “fire and ash” as she does when she burns the Polaroids of her nude self that David has taken, then that person has control over his or her life. Her father, then, becomes the stopper of the fire, the person who can diminish the...

(The entire section is 1955 words.)