As I read Lauren Groff’s astoundingly good new novel The Vaster Wilds, I had a visceral flashback to being 8 years old and reading the children’s classic My Side of the Mountain: that delicious sense of a vast, unending wilderness, rich with possibilities and unforgiving, and the danger and potential for ingenuity of being a child alone in the middle of it. The Vaster Wilds feels like that, only more so. The child is smarter and in more danger; the wilderness is richer and more unforgiving; it is vaster.
The resemblance probably isn’t coincidental. In a 2018 interview with the New York Times, Groff talks about rereading My Side of the Mountain with her children, along with Julie of the Wolves, another Jean Craighead George classic. She noticed something odd about her reaction to those books as a parent, she said.
“Over the decades since I first found the books to be rollicking adventure stories,” Groff said, “they’ve become chilling horror stories of lonely children lost and desperate to survive in unforgiving wilderness.”
The Vaster Wilds is in many ways a rollicking adventure story, quick-paced and snappy and frequently funny. It is also unmistakably a horror story.
The novel takes place during “the Starving Time” of the Jamestown colony, the winter of 1609, when the majority of settlers died of starvation and disease. Groff follows a girl who has chosen not to die there: a girl who steals out of the colony to make her way through the wilderness to somewhere, anywhere, she might be able to live.
The girl does not have a name. She grew up in a London poorhouse with nuns who called her Lamentations, because her mother was a prostitute. She came to Jamestown as the servant to a woman who called her Zed, “the least and littlest and last to be counted like the strangest of all the letters of the alphabet.” When she talks to herself, she calls herself “girl”: “Think not of it, girl,” she admonishes herself as she flees the colony, “else you shall die with grief.”
The girl is somewhere between 16 and 18 years old. She is uneducated, but she is ingenious. In the cold winter forest, she builds makeshift shelters from rocks and blankets and hollow trees. She feeds herself on fish and eggs and dried berries when she is lucky, and wood grubs when she is not. She is powered by sheer determination. She intends to make it from Jamestown to the French colonies in Canada, where she plans to find and marry a fur trapper who can take her to France.
The girl cannot imagine that she will have to trek over 700 miles by foot to get from Virginia to Canada. She does not have the sense of scale to contemplate such a journey. She only knows that staying in Jamestown will kill her.
As the girl travels, Groff’s prose takes on a hallucinatory, feverish quality that pushes the tension high. Her pastiche of Elizabethan prose is playful and fluid, dense with alliteration and allusion. (Blink and you’ll miss the Shakespeare cameo in the flashback to the girl’s London life.) Its rhythm is so quick and unfaltering that it becomes impossible to put the book down; the rat-a-tat-tat of each sentence just keeps carrying you along.
The prose is also highly physical. This book is exquisitely attuned to the experience of being a human body within nature: the bitterness of the cold and hunger on the girl’s body; the way her feet blister and how she pads her shoes with fluff stolen from a squirrel’s nest; the visceral relief she feels upon jumping into a hot spring and using the water to kill the nits nesting under her arms and along her groin.
Groff’s wilderness is brutal and violent. The girl frequently finds herself admiring the cuteness of baby animals before she kills and eats them. Misfortune piles upon misfortune as she gets farther and farther from the colony: starvation, freezing, injuries, illness. At one point, I threw the book down and laughed to keep from crying at the sheer perversity with which Groff tortures her heroine. There is no possible malady from which the girl is shielded.
The girl is not entirely alone in the wilderness. As she makes her way north, she crosses paths repeatedly with Native people, but she is always careful to keep her distance from them. She thinks they must be awed by her and consider her a mystic vision; Groff hops into their heads to show us they consider her instead comical and sad and probably insane. The girl’s prejudice against the Native tribes remains stronger than her fear of the wilderness, even as she comes to the slow conclusion that her own people have no business in America at all.
The book would be unbearable to read if it weren’t for the sublime moments of redemption that Groff’s brutal, bloody wilderness offers. In one moment, the girl loses track of her pain by looking at the pattern of clouds across the sky, “thick woolen clouds” with holes through which “the dazzling bright sun poked its long pale fingers and touched the ground, and the trees that the light suddenly singled out from the rest appeared so perfect, such pristine exemplars of their species, that she did not know how she did not see each tree’s perfect beauty before this moment.”
“It is a moral failure to miss the profound beauty of the world,” the girl concludes.
Stark, vicious, and transcendent, The Vaster Wilds is the best book I’ve read all year. It’s a triumph.