At some point during the winter of 1609–10, in Jamestown, Virginia, the starving English settlers are said to have begun eating one another. Meanwhile, back in London, the King James Version of the Bible, arguably the greatest work of prose in the English language, was receiving its final edits; it went to the printer the following year. Lauren Groff’s haunting new novel, The Vaster Wilds, doesn’t mention the King James Bible by name, or that its completion coincided with the horrors at Jamestown. But the confluence of these two events hovers in the background. The novel is set in and around the colony just before and during the Starving Time, as it came to be known, with flashbacks to London—and it has a biblical dimension of its own. The same two extremes of human experience are on display: both high spiritual striving and colonialism in all of its unhinged depravity. Think of the book as Groff’s marriage of heaven and hell.
The spiritual seeker is the protagonist of the novel, a character Groff refers to as “the girl.” She is an orphan with mysteriously dark skin: Her father, who is unknown, may have had Moorish blood. When the story opens, the girl has just snuck out of the Jamestown fort—the inhabitants have descended into cannibalism—and run away from her employers. These are a minister and his wife, who took her, their servant, with them from London to the colonies after the man decided, seemingly on a whim, to seek his fortunes in the New World. The narrative recounts the girl’s journey through the wilderness.
The Vaster Wilds is historical fiction only in the most literal sense. A better description would be Christian allegory in a post-Christian spirit. It’s The Pilgrim’s Progress in the American forest primeval, with distinctly non-Puritan ideas about salvation. (Groff knows her way around Protestantism; she was raised “within a strand of Calvinism that was paternalistic and harsh,” she told The Paris Review.) The language is Elizabethan, mercifully simplified and drunk on the resonant imagery and majestic cadences of the King James Version. The girl suffers from night terrors and visions full of scriptural allusions. At one point, she seems to see the prophet Ezekiel’s valley of bones (at least that’s what I take it to be), and although in the Bible, God raises the bones and puts the flesh back on them, turning them into an army that will be the salvation of Israel, the bones in the girl’s nightmare are infernal. They belong to beasts “with plaques of clay falling from their joints”; they’re “all black and sere, for in such a gray and desert meadow as the one she saw in her terror, only the dead could walk their phantom bones.”
By Lauren Groff
And yet, she also seems to be watched over by angel-like presences who keep her tethered to life. Trying and failing to make her flint strike a fire, she entreats, “Spark, fall upon this leaf and become flame.” Soon, as if by divine intervention,
A spark fell and she cradled it with dry needles and dead leaves and breathed upon it, and the spark was shy, it nearly flicked itself dead again, but she prayed and blew again, and it grew, it ate a small bite of the dead leaf and found that it wanted more, it licked up and became flickering joyous flame.
As the girl sets out, winter is turning to spring, but the air hasn’t warmed yet. She has had the presence of mind to steal two woolen coverlets, along with a hatchet, a knife, a pewter cup, a flint, and the boots of a boy who has died of smallpox. In her relentless solitude, these objects become her companions and friends. Nevertheless, she is slight, and the cold slices through her. The tasks of survival are gargantuan: She must catch enough fish and grubs to fend off starvation, avoid “the wolves and the mountain lions and the serpents that made a home in this wild, uncivilized land,” and elude the mercenary she’s sure is pursuing her. She has glancing encounters with the Powhatan people who live in the woods, smelling their smoke, spotting their children, but she fears them too. She presses onward, at first with clear purpose—if a map she once glimpsed over a shoulder in Jamestown is correct, she’ll find “frenchmen” to the north—but when she no longer knows which way she’s going, she keeps going anyway. Voices in her head scold or mock her. “I run toward living, I run toward the living,” she tells one.
Memories afflict her. Back in London, the girl served in the house of the woman known here only as “the mistress,” a wealthy, socially ambitious, flighty creature who is not as kind as she seems. The girl has never had a name she considers her own: In the parish poorhouse where she spent her first four or five years, they named her Lamentations, because, they said, her mother was a prostitute. After she enters the household of the mistress, the girl must answer to Girl, Wench, or Fool. The mistress calls her Zed, “for she was always the least and the littlest and the last to be counted,” and also because that was the name of the recently deceased pet monkey that the girl was brought in to replace. The woman teaches the child to dance and sing and tell riddles—she is being raised to be a “delicious morsel” who will amuse the poets and artists who sup at the mistress’s table. The woman’s son, Kit, a petty sadist, torments the girl when his mother isn’t looking. Later, he brings friends home from the university, and they rape the girl over his mother’s feeble objections. It is not clear whether she has even reached puberty.
In need of love and a reason to live, the girl devotes herself to caring for Bess, her mistress’s sweet but simpleminded and largely ignored daughter. She ekes out an education where she can, from the books Kit shows her and the tales he tells when he isn’t harassing her, and from the Bible. She listens closely when it’s read aloud in church, taking its words “whole in long phrases into her knowledge.” On the voyage to America, she falls in love with a Dutch boy and dreams of marrying him, but he is swept to sea in a storm. After her beloved Bess dies in Jamestown, the girl makes the decision to flee.
Groff has said in interviews that she modeled the book on captivity narratives in which Native American “savages” capture white settler women, and on Robinson Crusoe. Fair enough, but she inverts the premise of both of these constitutive fictions of European occupation. The girl begins in captivity and runs toward freedom, and although she exhibits Crusoe’s thrilling resourcefulness, she has none of his will to master nature; she would never claim, as he does, “a right of possession” to the land. That’s Groff’s point: The girl is the opposite of a colonist. She regards the forest and its creatures with appropriate awe.
Groff’s fiction is usually identified as ecological and feminist, which it certainly is, but it is theological too. Lately, the religion has come out into the open. Groff’s previous novel, Matrix, centered on a historical figure, the 12th-century French poet Marie de France, imagining her as a lesbian abbess and visionary, a proto-feminist of sorts. In The Vaster Wilds, Groff all but asserts fealty to God—her god, the god of nature, who dwells everywhere and in everything. If I had to identify the prophet of her creed, I’d name William Bartram, the 18th-century Quaker and explorer of the Americas—including Florida, where Groff lives—whose radical environmentalism rivaled that of any activist today.
Starting from the premise that God is present in His Creation, meaning that He resides in all things, Bartram overturned an orthodoxy of his time that endures in ours: that humans in their superiority have the right to use the world as they will. With astonishing prescience, he asserted that animals—and plants!—possess species-specific forms of reason and a moral intelligence equal or superior to humans’. I’m not pulling Bartram’s name out of thin air: Groff’s collection Florida includes a short story, “Flower Hunters,” in which a woman develops a passion for Bartram so intense that it puts her marriage in danger.
Nature is Groff’s muse as well as her deity. Her prose, always alive and sensuous, is hit by an extra electrical charge when she exposes characters to the elements. “There were pulsing navy veins within the clouds,” observes a woman who has refused to evacuate ahead of a hurricane in the short story “Eyewall,” also in Florida. The roiling sky reminds her of the spilling organs of a buck killed and gutted by her husband—an association that hints that the storm has come to avenge that outrage, and others like it. Groff isn’t afraid of the pathetic fallacy; she’s an old-school Romantic, happy to attribute motives to weather, flora, and fauna. Florida serves up the kind of ecological horror stories in which panthers and reptiles and sinkholes lurk just beyond the field of human vision, eager to vent nature’s wrath.
In The Vaster Wilds, the despoiling of the North American continent has just begun. This is a fable of what could have been. Nature isn’t angry; it’s sublimely indifferent at worst, benevolent at best. A beast, perhaps a bear, sniffs the girl as she sleeps, but does not attack her. In her first few hours in the forest, the girl becomes aware that she is being observed, and thinks the eyes belong to whomever is hunting her. But it’s the birds and animals who watch as she crashes through the woods, regarding her not as prey but “in silent wonderment.”
Then she moves on, and the novel takes a brief, curious turn. On the whole, the authorial voice stays close to the girl, but now it lags behind. Suddenly we see as if from the vantage point of eternity:
The forest’s sense of time shuddered and jerked forward, and the rip that the running girl made became healed, and the ordinary business of the creatures’ hungers was reawakened behind her. Only hours after she had passed through the forest, she became to them a strange dream barely remembered in the urgencies of the moment.
The narrator makes other quick perspectival shifts like this one—not many, but they add up and give the novel a sense of capaciousness, a wide-angled grandeur. Later, the story is paused so we may hear about a former Jesuit who attacks the girl. He has lived alone in the wild a long time—how long he doesn’t know—and all but lost the power to think in words. He has delusions of greatness. He believes he has survived purely by his wits, although the nearby Indigenous people secretly leave food in his way; he’s convinced that his solitude has made him holy, when in truth he has gone mad. He is the girl’s evil double, the cautionary specter of what she could become.
A pilgrimage is meant to lead the pilgrim toward redemption; she should lie down in green pastures and fear not evil. Whether the girl is moving in that direction is the question. Terrible trials await: violence, disease, soul-crushing loneliness. The suspense comes from not knowing whether she’ll die before she reaches a destination. Then again, death is not death in this novel. Faced with the choice of drowning while crossing a river whose ice cover is breaking up, or being caught by her pursuer, the girl concludes that drowning is preferable. The water would gather her body “into its dark hands” and carry it downriver to be eaten by fish, inducting her into “the eternal chain of being.” Bartram based a philosophy on a vision of nature as “the universal vibration of life.” Groff has written the gospel.
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