Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 437
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 work to the existential belief that human beings create their identities through the choices they make. Without the aid of any authority, Joe alone must decide for himself, and his decision may be the wrong one, may even be fatal. His isolation is intensified by the mobility of his family and his consequent lack of longtime friends or other relatives in whom to confide. Alone, he faces unavoidable change, and with his new knowledge, he suffers the inevitable “fall” from the grace of childhood. Joe’s strength derives from what his mother terms “inquiring intelligence.” “Everything will always surprise you,” she tells him, and when he has faced his dilemmas and acted, perhaps wisely, perhaps not, he seems well on the way to shaping a meaningful life for himself.
In Wildlife, Ford strongly evokes the troubled and puzzling teenage years of a boy on the border of maturity. With a spare, carefully shaped prose style that reflects the setting of the action and the quality of the problems and choices Joe faces, Ford creates a character and situations with which many young people can, no doubt, identify.
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