A servant girl escapes into the woods from the Jamestown colony in 1609, during the “starving time,” in Lauren Groff’s seventh book, The Vaster Wilds (Riverhead, Sept.). The historical novel encompasses all of Groff’s favorite themes, or, as she calls them in her author note, “obsessions”—the power of women, the environment, community, religion and spirituality—in a gripping story of survival written in gorgeous Elizabethan language.
Groff describes the girl slipping into the night and seeing the remains of a soldier who had gone before her, and the fate he encountered at the hands of “the fearsomest of the men of this country”: “The warrior two heads taller than the men of the fort, who made himself yet more terrible by wearing upon his shoulders outstretched a broad dark mantle of turkey feathers. He had lifted with one hand the creeping fearful soldier by his hair and had with a knife cut a long red mouth into the man’s throat. Then he dropped him to spill his heart’s blood into the frozen earth and there the dead man lay splayed ignoble.”
The story follows the trials and adventures of the girl as she attempts to survive in the wilderness, hoping to make it north to the French colony. As she travels, she recalls incidents from her past: she was born in an English poor house and given the name Lamentations, “to remember the stain of her sin upon her.” Sold at four years old as a servant to a mistress who treats her as a pet, she was a replacement for a monkey who had “tiptoed out to the street and trembling awaited his trampling by a horse, for he could not take life in such bondage any longer.” Later, she was handed over to her mistress’s brutal son and his friends as a plaything.
Groff has created a formidable character in this girl who braves weather and wild animals and sickness and loneliness; through it all, we are witness to her rich interior life.
Groff speaks with me over Zoom from Berlin, where she is a spring fellow at the American Academy. “Two things brought me to this book,” she says. “Robinson Crusoe, a favorite book of mine—a brilliant sociological project dissecting the English mindset of the time. I love survival stories.”
Then in college, Groff read early American captivity narratives, citing in particular the work of Mary Rolandson, who was kidnapped in an Indian raid and wrote about her experiences in A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. “Many of these narratives upheld or justified colonialism,” Groff says. “They are deeply racist and difficult to read, but the voice of the woman comes out in the story. Likely a man molded and edited the narrative, but I was interested in that glimmer.”
Groff started The Vaster Wilds in 2018. “I wanted to see if I could find a way into the captivity narratives and invert them,” she explains, “to look at the culture of dominance and ecological collapse.”
Bill Clegg, Groff’s agent from the start, says he knew that one of her upcoming projects was called The Vaster Wilds, a title he loved. “As with all her novels, I read this one in a late-stage full draft. She sent it in early March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, just as I was leaving New York City with my family for what would turn out to be 18 months. Lauren tends to give me a day or two warning and then there is an immediate clearing of the decks!”
“When I first read The Vaster Wilds”, Clegg continues, “I couldn’t help but remember the awe and thrill I felt reading My Side of the Mountain. But in this case, the young person was a girl surviving in the wild. Also, she’s running from people who want to kill her. What stood out the most to me was the meticulous and gorgeous descriptions of the wilderness the girl has escaped into. And not just the flora and fauna, but the elements themselves. Let it be known that Lauren Groff can write the hell out of a snowstorm. In this novel more than any other, Lauren has made the natural world as rich and complex and engrossing a character as her protagonist.”
Clegg says he read “L. DeBard and Aliette,” a story of Groff’s that appeared in the Atlantic, in 2006. It’s a gothic imagining of a love story set in New York City during the Spanish influenza of 1918. “It was a jaw dropper,” Clegg recalls, and he quickly reached out to her. She sent him a draft of her debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton. “I read it in a gulp and hopped on a plane to Louisville, Ky., where she was teaching,” he tells me. “I took her to lunch and made as strong a case as I could that we work together.” She became his client in 2007.
Riverhead editor-in-chief Sarah McGrath became Groff’s editor in 2014, but, she says, “I had always been reading and loving her books. I was sent Fates and Furies, we had a fantastic meeting, and I remember writing her a long single-spaced letter telling her how I saw the book and how we could publish it. It embarrasses me to think about it now.”
The Vaster Wilds is the first book in Groff’s second three-book deal with Riverhead—the first beginning with Furies, which McGrath won in a competitive auction and published in 2015. McGrath is constantly in touch with Groff, but says Groff doesn’t show her work “until it’s baked. She knows what she wants to achieve; my job is to respond.”
The Vaster Wilds and Groff’s previous book, The Matrix, are historical but feel contemporary in their themes, McGrath says. “It’s the 1600s, but you are that girl in the woods. I go for a hike and think, ‘Could I survive here? Could that tree be hollowed out?’ The themes she’s exploring, she has been exploring in all her works—especially the place of women in the world, the patriarchy, and our relationship with nature. So while she has tremendous range, the books are all closely related.”
The violence in the novel is vivid and powerful, as in this passage describing a raid by the Powhatan tribe on a Jesuit mission: “The priests lay dead in their cots within with their necks slit open and the blood of their hearts rushing to the ground.” The retaliation is also brutally rendered: “In vengeance for the massacred priests,” their countrymen “painted the earth red with the blood of the natives, women and children and old men, and set fire to their buildings.”
“The violence is in the historical record,” Groff tells me, and mentions an excerpt she read at the Radcliffe Institute in 2019, in which “women kidnap a man who raped one of them, and it’s a graphic description of them flaying and dismembering him. Every man in the audience almost passed out!”