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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1965

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...

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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.

While she contends that her neighbors are “hardened to my ways,” she is still regarded as a lunatic and shunned, and for her part she has little to do with them. Her remove to the forest only accentuates her isolation from communal intercourse, but ironically she finds an all-too-brief sense of belonging with creatures not of her own species. Here she is accepted for exactly who and what she is, and is even invited to participate in one of their most sacred rituals. After a young member of the tribe is killed by a hunter and the tribe recovers the corpse, they consume it:

It was a sacrament by which this child redeemed the lives of his family. His corporeal body will be found nowhere—he is buried within the bodies of his mother, his father—and thus their lives, their objective existence, undivulged, shall remain a secret closely kept from the brutal world of Men.

Her separation seems complete until she is returned to civilization, an unwelcome reunion because “I am afraid of people, so much so that I fear I shall always go on like this.” However, after her rescue she sees the world and others with new eyes. Stuband, whom she had regarded as dull and ill-educated, becomes an unexpected source of comfort and reveals Charlotte’s desire for others despite her assertions of flinty individuality.

Ours is not a relationship of devotion, but Stuband and I are long acquainted and have old knowledge of each other’s losses and successes, burdens and fortunate outcomes. I believe we have a dim understanding: like a tough plant that survives drought and flood and snow and sun, our relation to each other must be deep-rooted and stronger than a relation that is tender and looked after.

The source of much of Charlotte’s independence is her feminism, which she expresses through numerous reflections, asides, even disquisitions on the place and condition of women in society. She contemplates the effects of burgeoning technology playing a role in female emancipation, the intellectual freedom that education encourages, and the structure that marriage inevitably imposes on women. The persistence and sheer number of these meditations and the stridency with which they are presented become overbearing and predictable. Whenever confronted with adversity, Charlotte can be relied upon to offer another extended comment on female constraint.

However, once she wanders into the woods, Charlotte, like so many writers before her, especially in the twentieth century, literally discovers her own voice. Gone are the rhetorically predictable sermons, replaced with probing, original observations. This may in fact be Gloss’s point: In a society where independence—physical as well as intellectual—like Charlotte’s appears freakish, such a woman might well feel compelled to defend and justify her existence. Freed of those constraints, she is freed to express her own unique thoughts.

Indeed, among the wild creatures she feels a particular kinship with the female she names Cleo, and that closeness gives rise to a sensation of connectedness and immense communion. She describes this condition in one of the novel’s most moving passages:

In silence we two women and the baby watched the sun set and twilight fall. . . . I felt that we had climbed high above thought; here we could sit distracted, holding nothing in our minds but the glory of the sky—the miracle of the cold moon upon the white peak of the mountain. . . . I began to cry, which I have not done for oh so very long—whether for my nameless boys or for my situation or for all the dead and lost children, in truth I cannot say. . . . The mother almost certainly understood its meaning, for she began to join me in mourning, raising her voice in an opening phrase. . . . By such small increments the old lines that set me apart, that defined me, are erased. The sky by then was dark as a bear’s mouth, and our keening song, unearthly, wordless as water, rose up into it and was swallowed whole.

Her experience in the wild releases her and reinforces her feminism, but a feminism now on her terms and a feminism that reveals her need for the Other in the figures of the creatures and the once-ignored Stuband.

Wild Life is an intricately constructed fiction that is as much a metafictional examination of the workings of narrative as it is a story of a woman’s pilgrimage. The story begins with a letter detailing how the manuscript of this diary has seen the light of day and its distinct anomalies:

It’s mostly (apparently) a diary. Some of the diary pages were torn out and stuck in at other places, so the dates are not entirely consecutive; and there’s a bunch of other stuff interleafed too. . . . The smaller scraps of paper shoved in between the pages are mostly quotations from various people, newspaper clippings, that kind of thing.

Thus the novel is assembled like the layers of a Chinese box, with numerous narratives and prose fragments nestled within one another. These include Charlotte’s other published and unpublished works, newspaper clippings, folk songs, quotes from novels and nonfictional studies, character studies, and the like.

Metafictions are by nature self-conscious examinations of the ways in which consciousness constructs and maintains “reality,” and indeed Charlotte is forever contemplating who she is, what her role in the world is, and what relationship her writing has to that sense of identity. Before her trek she is fascinated by stories of “Wild Men of the Woods” that are brought back from the logging camps by the lost girl’s father. She even plans a story about them, and once confronted by the creatures she questions the testimony of her eyes:

My mind has been cut loose from its moorings and now follows its usual course, adrift in a wild beast fable: they are the Mountain Giants from the hidden caves of the See-Ah-Tiks, and I am the intrepid Girl Explorer, Helena Reed.

The novel never firmly resolves whether her account is factual or the product of a body long deprived of nourishment and an imagination overtaxed. What is significant, though, is that the act of writing is essential to Charlotte’s very being and her salvation: “I think I must be writing for both of us [she and Cleo who has lost her child]—writing as women have always written—to make sense of what the heart cannot take in all at once.”

Wild Life is a daring, richly imagined novel that can be read in a host of ways, each of which presents rewards and satisfactions that exceed the ordinary reading experience. Although Gloss has written other well-received novels, this is the work that may very well bring her much-deserved and wider recognition, and it is a rare narrative experience.

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic Monthly 286 (July, 2000): 98.

Booklist 96 (June 1, 2000): 1851.

Library Journal 125 (June 1, 2000): 196.

New Statesman 128 (September, 2000): 57.

The New York Times Book Review 105 (September 24, 2000): 30.

Publishers Weekly 247 (May 8, 2000): 204.

The Washington Post Book World, July 23, 2000, p. 4.

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