The novel opens in 1999 when a grandchild of Charlotte Bridger Drummond stumbles across a journal and assorted literary papers and sends them off to her sister for possible publication. The diary extends from March to June of 1905, when Charlotte reviews her placid existence and sets off on a life-altering adventure.
Initially, Charlotte’s days are spent chasing her five boys around her farm while she tries to steal a few hours for writing potboilers to earn a meager income. A confirmed feminist, Charlotte is often at comical odds with her fifty-two-year-old housekeeper, Melba Pelton, who disapproves of Charlotte’s housekeeping and liberated demeanor. When word arrives that Melba’s granddaughter has been lost in the woods, Charlotte sets off into the wilderness, as much out of hubris as out of concern and solicitude. When she becomes separated from her search party and disoriented, she eventually falls in with a tribe of Sasquatch-like creatures and lives with them for a few weeks. In that time she loses all touch with humanity, her old life, and, she fears, her sanity. Eventually she is discovered by some conservationists and reunited with her family.
In one respect the novel stands as a contemporary example of beautiful local color writing. The novel in fact begins with a map of southwestern Washington and a prefatory note in which Gloss announces her fidelity to history and geography, and Charlotte often refers to writers such as Willa Cather as inspirations. The re-creation of the novel’s rural communities at the turn of the twentieth century reveals a fragile time when one way of life was rapidly giving way to another. Additionally, the narrative is occasionally interrupted by interchapters that offer portraits of the principal characters in Charlotte’s life that remind the reader of daguerreotypes in an old photo album.
However, the strongest indications of local color writing come in the precise evocations of landscape and place:
The Skamokawa anchorage is both deep and sheltered; log booms lie in the sloughs in bad weather, and there are a few small hand-logging outfits who skid down to the river and hang their booms in the Columbia River, east and west of the town. We are long in years, as Western towns go, and in the self-conscious manner of the logging West, much is made of the “old days” before the donkey engine—the days of ox teams and bull-whackers and monstrous trees so immense as to challenge the imagination. Now the big trees have all been cut for miles around, and there is a packet that stops daily on a westbound trip to Astoria, and another on an eastbound to Kalama, Ridgefield, and Portland, and we get every kind of local river traffic—tugs and trawlers as well as rowboats and barges. We are, if not entirely civilized, entirely modern, and consider ourselves at the center of Western commerce and industry.
At the same time, the novel is a work of literary primitivism, with Charlotte suspicious of civilized pretensions and conventions. The novel plays repeatedly on its title and the implications of “wildness.” Charlotte, for instance, relies on wildness as a central principle in child rearing: “It’s my argument that a child’s happiness and well-being decreases in direct proportion to the degree of his civilization.” However, it is the sojourn in the woods that leads to Charlotte’s full immersion in the Other; she refers to herself as a “stinking wild creature,” learns the rudiments of the tribe’s language, and develops a bond with a particular creature “as if we were two women.” The identification with these creatures becomes so complete that she is fired upon by a hunter and shuns returning to humankind, feeling she now inhabits “a new world, wild and terrible.”
Central to the novel’s concerns is the theme of community, which Charlotte contemplates continually and which is hardly surprising for a woman who feels she inhabits the periphery of her town and the publishing world. In Skamokawa she is the resident oddball, refusing to wear shoes around the farm she neglects and leaves uncultivated, dressing in men’s pants, smoking a cigar, and writing her stories in a windowless, unheated tool shed. As she writes, “There’s not much point in dressing outlandishly if it goes unnoticed.” While good, God-fearing people attend Sunday services, she gallivants around on her bicycle, against the accepted wisdom of the era: “As regards women, the intoxication of flying through the streets under one’s own power is said to lead to unspecified, doubtless shameful, acts of immorality.” Abandoned by her husband after his business fails, Charlotte fiercely cherishes her freedom, though Melba finds her condition scandalous and tries to marry her off to Horace Stuband, a taciturn neighboring farmer.
(The entire section is 1965 words.)