The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff


Review by David Starkey

In some respects, Lauren Groff’s latest novel is an old-fashioned adventure tale. It begins with a teen girl, “bony and childish small” but quick, smart and capable of on-the-fly problem-solving, escaping through “a slit too seeming thin for human passage” in “the tall black wall of a palisade.” What “she”the girl” is escaping from and who is after her as she races across the frozen wasteland is not immediately clear. It doesn’t matter. Groff, writing better than ever, keeps us by her side and in her mind as the girl hurries ever further away from the place that has evidently caused her so much pain and fear.

As the story unfolds, often through extended flashbacks, we realize—though we are never told this directly—that the girl is on the run from Jamestown, Virginia, in the famine-stricken winter of 1609 and 1610. Brought to the colony as caretaker to Bess, a sweet, developmentally disabled girl, to whom the protagonist is entirely devoted, the girl must reckon with not just the starvation and disease rife in Jamestown, but also Bess’s wealthy but aging and vain mother, and the woman’s new husband, a cruel and hypocritical fire and brimstone clergyman. As the events that led to the girl fleeing the fort are gradually revealed, we come to understand why she has chosen the menace of the vaster wilds over the eroded English “civilization” of the Starving Time.

Cold and hunger are the two keynotes of the novel. The loss of a pair of leather gloves is high tragedy, “like a physical blow to her chest,” while warmth from nighttime fires—she has the foresight to bring along a stolen flint—offers a temporary consolation that can seem almost heavenly. Food, and the search for it, is such a powerful motive that by the time the girl happens on a nest of baby squirrels and roasts them over her fire, the reader probably won’t even squirm. Similarly, when she comes across a narrowing in a river that allows her, like the bears that move in and out of the novel, to capture wild salmon with her hands, you feel her joy and relief at the good fortune of access to so much tasty protein.

The Powhatans, who, like the bears, mostly remain on the edge of the narrative, have rightfully come to lethal blows with the men of Jamestown, but the girl, by virtue of her stature, insignificance and apparent helplessness, incites neither anger, nor much compassion, on the part of the native people. Indeed, in one instance, when she imagines the lifelong impression she will make on two Powhatan girls, we are told by the narrator that after laughing at the girl, they never think of her again.

If The Vaster Wilds is primarily a page-turning survival yarn, it also very clearly offers Groff an opportunity to reflect on the place of women, not just in early seventeenth-century North America and Europe (in England she was “called many things, Girl, and Wench, and Fool, and Child, and Zed”), but in the general scheme of the patriarchy. Crossing the ocean, the girl has a shipboard romance with a Dutch apprentice about her own age, who perishes at sea. This lone meeting of compatible minds and bodies contrasts with the many other ill-conceived sexual and romantic relationships described throughout the book. Men in society, the novel argues, will inevitably abuse their power. It is only when the girl escapes their hostile community and enters the natural world that she is able to fully exercise her independence and ingenuity.

Writing a novel set more than four hundred years ago presents an author with obvious linguistic hazards. How do you fashion the language of a story from the time of Shakespeare without sounding like a pretentious nincompoop or some hipper-than-thou avant-gardist? Groff manages this feat—perhaps the most compelling aspect of the novel—by sticking with vivid imagery and concrete nouns and verbs, with just a scintilla of that era’s flair for the dramatic: “When the hailstone melted, it tasted like the forest, all moss and bark, but also of the high and furious cloud that had spat such wrath down upon her.” Whatever you think of Groff’s previous books, and I have been less taken with them than others, do not miss the rich, enthralling fictional world of The Vaster Wilds.