Transcendent. Mesmerizing. Dazzling. Incandescent. Audacious. These are some of the superlatives that media outlets including The Atlantic, Harper’s Bazaar and Esquire have used to describe Lauren Groff. All of those descriptors are accurate and none of them are sufficient to describe just how spectacular her new book, “The Vaster Wilds” (Riverhead Books, $28), truly is.
Written in a classic, timeless style, the novel reads like it could have been written hundreds of years ago, yet it is seductively straightforward, fast-paced and accessible. The story begins in the Jamestown Settlement in 1609 during “the starving time.” Following a series of horrific events that are revealed as the story unfolds, a nameless teenage servant girl slips out of the village unnoticed late one night in the middle of winter and begins a long, arduous run for her life. Her destination is north, to the French settlements, because she knows a few words of their language.
Born out of wedlock, abandoned to a poorhouse and enslaved by a wealthy family at the age of 4, she has never possessed a shred of agency. As a cruel joke, her mistress calls her Zed after her dead pet monkey. When the mistress’ grown son visits and requests the girl’s services for himself and his friends, she is handed over.
“She was a mote, a speck, a floating windborne fleck of dust.”
But all that changes the minute she slips outside the settlement and begins her journey. Instantly, she gains a freedom she’s never known and with it the sole responsibility for keeping herself alive. It is a daunting task, but she is a resourceful girl, armed with just a hatchet, a flint and a pewter cup. The reader basks in every victory she achieves — the capture of a fish, the discovery of a patch of mushrooms roasted by wildfire, the location of an overnight shelter inside a cave or hollowed-out log.
Groff has stated that “The Vaster Wilds” is a response to the captivity narratives that arose in American literature in the 17th century about white women and children kidnapped by Native Americans. Written by Europeans, these books often dwelled on savagery and the “otherness” of Native American culture, and promoted the concept of imperialism.
“The Vaster Wilds” upends that idea by giving the girl authority over her situation. And because experience has taught her to fear all men, she doesn’t single out the indigenous men she encounters as any more or less threatening than the soldier who’s tailing her. The only way she differentiates them from her European compatriots is by her name for them: “those born to this land.”
Groff has a gift for creating immersive historical fiction that addresses issues relevant today. “Matrix,” her 2021 novel about a 16th century nun, was a commentary on a woman’s right to choose her own life path. “The Vaster Wilds” addresses the ills of colonialism and the patriarchy, and women’s generalized fear of men.
While hiding from two men behind a waterfall, the girl observes, that “she was chilled to her soul, for it was reflexive, for she feared the fate of women anywhere, women caught alone on a dark street in a city, in a country lane far from human ears, in any place where there were no people nearby to witness.”
Groff’s portrayal of the girl is so intimate and visceral, the reader may feel as though they’ve crawled inside her skin and are experiencing her every physical sensation — hunger, pain, cold — as well as her triumphs, like when she discovers another food source, even when it’s a nest of baby squirrels.
The girl’s journey is undertaken in total solitude, but she is not totally alone. She is accompanied by her fantasies, dreams and memories. It’s through the latter that the story is told of her life in England before coming to Jamestown and the wretched voyage she took to get there. As grim as her life is and always has been, there are moments of joy that sustain her like a shipboard romance that proves to her not all men are a danger.
In the end, the girl’s journey is not just one of survival. It is also a journey of enlightenment. Left to her thoughts as she runs through the wilderness, she begins to question the virtue of the European settlements and their infringement on “those born to the land.” She comes to realize it is “a moral failure to miss the profound beauty of the world.” An encounter with a bear prompts a moment of spiritual clarity about the fallacy of man speaking for God.
But her biggest lesson is like a dagger to the heart, considering all that she endures: Without a community to share it with, freedom has little value.
Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.