(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The wide-open spaces, the mountains, and the forest fires in Wildlife serve not only as backdrops and symbols but also as catalysts for the action of the novel. The lives of four main characters—Joe Brinson, his parents, and the man with whom his mother has an affair—are shaped by their environment. The action occurs in 1961 in Great Falls, Montana, which for Joe is “a town that was not my home and never would be.” This sense of disorientation and alienation is central to the message of Ford’s novel.

Wildlife is a rite-of-passage novel in which Joe, remembering events that occurred when he was sixteen, confronts life, death, change, and truth. His father, who moved the family to Montana during an oil boom in hopes of bettering their lot, finds a job fighting fires in the mountains. During his absence, Joe’s mother briefly takes a lover. In an important passage, Joe considers the average youth’s ignorance of his parents, “which can save you from becoming an adult too early.” On the other hand, he believes that shielding oneself is a mistake, “since what’s lost is the truth of your parents’ life and what you should think about it, and beyond that, how you should estimate the world you are about to live in.”

Faced with his mother’s infidelity and his father’s rage, Joe must make choices that most young people are spared. The significance of decision making in this novel relates Ford’s...

(The entire section is 437 words.)