September 2023

The Vaster Wilds

By Lauren Groff
While The Vaster Wilds is often a dark story with only slivers of hope, Lauren Groff’s inimitable style and language make it a memorable, immersive novel.
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After Matrix, her vivid feminist novel starring a medieval nun, Lauren Groff returns with another historical novel, The Vaster Wilds, about a young Colonial-era woman’s journey out of a sick and starving Jamestown, Virginia.

As the novel opens, the girl (the narrative refers to this teenage main character only as “the girl”) has fled the Jamestown fort for the wilderness, aiming north to find a French colony that she’s heard about. She’s managed to steal a few key items—an ax, a pewter cup, two coverlets, leather boots, gloves—and now she runs through the late-winter night, aware of danger from wild animals, the Jamestown men sent out to find her and “the people of this place,” her phrase for Native Americans.

The novel’s omniscient narration recounts the girl’s journey in language that’s by turns earthy and visceral (she suffers repeated bouts of “hot liquid shits” after eating whatever she can gather), and poetic and visionary. Groff closely follows the girl’s intrepid, remarkable efforts to stay alive—building fires, hunting for food, creating makeshift shelters. As the girl travels, she remembers scraps of her past: her childhood in the London poorhouse where she was called Lamentations; the years with her wealthy mistress, who named her Zed; the hair-raising voyage across the Atlantic Ocean; and days spent with the mistress’s mentally disabled little daughter, Bess, the one person who ever loved and was loved by the girl. The girl is illiterate, but she knows her Bible, and her existential questions about the world run deep as she walks and ponders. The narration also lets us in on the stories of the few people the girl passes, like a hermit who fled his colony years before, and two Native American girls.

The Vaster Wilds is propelled by the girl’s struggle to survive, but also by her interiority and what her memories reveal about her previous life in London and that dreadful year in the Jamestown colony. Groff romanticizes neither English colonists nor Native Americans, and the brutality that the girl remembers and encounters can make for hard reading. But there’s also natural beauty at almost every turn, and the novel’s descriptions of rivers, ice storms, waterfalls and vistas are gorgeous and haunting, sometimes almost hallucinatory.

Though brief (272 pages), The Vaster Wilds is a layered, dense novel, one that can be read as an allegory about the follies of the American experiment and humans’ planetary depredations. While it’s often a dark story with only slivers of hope, Groff’s inimitable style and language makes it a memorable, immersive reading experience.

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The Vaster Wilds

The Vaster Wilds

By Lauren Groff
ISBN 9780593418390

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