Alexis M. Smith's Marrow Island is a wonderfully tense and creepy novel about a woman who returns home to Washington’s San Juan archipelago and finds a farm collective living on the eponymous island. Soon, it becomes disturbingly clear that Marrow Island may be having a sinister effect on the citizens living off the land. Smith explores the connection between the female psyche and the wilderness.
First, let me say that “wilderness” is a metaphor, but it’s also not. When I write about natural disasters and the effects of global warming in my novels, I want to express something true about them, about the deadly seriousness of them. But I also know that by crafting a story out of them, they become signifiers, casting meaning all over my characters and plot.
In Marrow Island, my heroine, Lucie Bowen, has a complicated familiarity with natural and manmade disasters: as a child she survived a deadly earthquake in Washington’s Puget Sound, but her father died in a refinery explosion in the aftermath; twenty years later she’s a journalist who writes about the environment. Lucie is a skeptic with a heart: she wants to believe that the human race will redeem itself, but suspects that the planet will decide our fate before we get the chance. Much of the book takes place inside Lucie’s head, as she’s alone in the wilderness, unraveling her past—or perhaps just unraveling.
The female psyche has often been equated with an untamable wilderness. Freud called it the “dark continent,” and writers male and female have been parsing that theme for decades since. I tend toward the interpretation that the female psyche, like the natural world, has been subjected to an imperialist male gaze, bent on colonization and exploitation, for centuries, so when I read books in which the natural world plays an important role, I tune into the female characters. I look for the mirrors in the landscape, the parallel tracks; I listen for the echoes. Here are some of my favorite stories about women and wilderness.
1. Surfacing by Margaret Atwood
There are older mass market editions of this Atwood novel that proclaim it “the most shocking story a woman ever wrote.” I used to snap them up at thrift stores and give them away to people who asked questions at my readings. Two women and two men venture into the Canadian wilderness to find out what happened to the missing survivalist father of one of the women, the narrator. No spoilers here, but it should come as no surprise that not all of them return to “civilization.”
2. The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson
This is the strange story of two women in a remote Finnish town: one is called a “witch” by the village children and commands a wolf-like hound; the other is an elderly illustrator of children’s books, adored the world over for her drawings of the forest floor, absurdly populated by fanciful bunnies. There’s a frozen lake looming beyond the wood onto which they pile things they no longer need or want, waiting for the spring thaw that will drown them all.
3. Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
Our heroine, Laura (a.k.a. Lolly), grows up among the plants and trees of her ale-maker father’s country estate. When he passes away, Laura, unmarried, spends the next dozen years in her elder brother’s home in London, doing what a dutiful sister does: helping to raise his children while her brother “manages” the living her father has left her. When she finds out her brother has made bad investments with her inheritance, she makes a break from her family for a town called Great Mop, where she wanders the fields and woods, meets the devil, and finds the locals observe a witch’s sabbath. One of the most suprising, delightful feminist novels of the 20th century.
4. The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin
Though the main character of Amanda Coplin’s novel is a man, his life is shaped by the girls and women around him, who come and go like the seasons, in and out of the wilderness that surrounds them. There’s a central mystery—a sister who vanishes almost without a trace, into the wilds—but my favorite thing about this novel is the depiction the landscape of eastern Washington State, its brutality and its bounty, and the ways in which it has been shaped by human hands.
5. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
I don’t know if I’ve ever read a story as haunting as Housekeeping. Two sisters, Ruth and Lucille, grow up losing everyone—their mother, their grandmother, their great aunts—and, eventually, each other, in a town called Fingerbone, on the shores of a lake that contains within its depths the wreck of a train and its passengers. The girls wander the shores of the lake with their vagabond aunt, Sylvie, stealing rowboats and exploring the ruins of homesteads. The flooding of the town is one of my favorite scenes in literature; it’s a masterclass in the narrative of landscape.
6. American Indian Stories by Zitkala-Sa
This isn’t a novel, but Zitkala-Sa’s memoirs of her Sioux childhood and years of forced assimilation in Eastern boarding schools are as compelling and crafted as any novel. She writes lucidly of “the land of red apples,” the broken promises of white missionaries, the pedagogy of alienation from the natural world, and how she sought to find the wildness in herself again. In one passage, she has returned home after years away, and spying a cousin’s pony, takes him for a joyous ride over the hills, chasing a coyote, watching a lone wolf catch her scent from an adjacent hillside. It brings me to tears every time.
7. My Abandonment by Peter Rock
Peter Rock’s My Abandonment goes deep into the psyche of a young woman coming-of-age, raised as much by the land around her as her mentally unstable father. Based on the true story of a father and daughter in Portland, Oregon, who lived for years hidden in Forest Park, a 5,000 acre urban wilderness, with only minimal social ineractions in the city at large. When they’re discovered by a lost runner and separated by police, it’s civilization v. wilderness at its most heart-wrenching.
8. A Pale View of the Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro
Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel is one of my favorites: the tale of Etsuko, a Japanese woman living in the English countryside, unraveling the suicide of her eldest daughter. Woven throughout is another tale, set in a suburb of Nagasaki several years after the end of World War II: Etsuko, then a pregnant new wife, befriends an unusual woman and her troubled daughter who rent one of the only traditional cottages not destroyed by the bomb or condemned in the aftermath. There is a literal wilderness here: the edge of the city where the rebuilding has stopped, where industrial waste pools and a small bridge across the dirty river leads to an abandoned wood. But the wilderness of memory—the cellular depth of trauma, passed in the DNA from mother to child—is what haunts this story.