Wilderness by Lance Weller (pub date 9/4/12)
I know that I keep saying how much I love novels that make me think. And of course I enjoy books that are more for fun as well, but there is just something about a great literary novel that really gets me going. I loves books in which the characters are the story, books that reflect timeless themes and show us something about human nature.
Wilderness is one of those books! I first heard about it a month or two before BEA, and being a big fan of Bloomsbury, I made sure to snatch up a copy. And I was blown away by this understated but powerful debut novel.
Set in 1899, Wilderness tells the story of Abel Truman, a Civil War veteran who fought for the Confederacy and lost the use of one arm. Haunted by horrors he witnessed during the war, as well as by his own personal sins, Abel made his way to rural Washington State after the war ended. He lives alone in a shack with only a dog for company, reflecting on the life that led him to his current condition.
When Abel is beaten by some roaming bandits, he is reminded that he cannot truly escape from the world. The rest of the book crosscuts between Abel’s past and present. He recalls being severely injured during the war and being nursed back to health by Hypatia, a runaway slave with her own sad past and who Abel figured would be the last person who would want to help him. And in the present Abel meets Glenn and Ellen Makers, a biracial couple who face their own hardships for marrying outside their own race, and a Chinese orphan named Jane Dao-Ming. These encounters, along with Abel’s backstory, show us both the good and evil in human nature.
Wilderness is an interesting title for this book. What I anticipated to be a “man v. nature” story turned out to be something entirely different. For me, the “wilderness” in this book was not the woods of Washington State, but the wilds of humanity. The story is set during a rough time in American history, when people had very little and struggled to survive. Throughout his redemptive journey, Abel witnesses both the abject cruelty and selfless kindness that people bestow on each other. It’s a haunting story that had me tearing up at the end.
If you are looking for a book with beautiful prose, great characters, and a meaningful story, I would definitely recommend Wilderness. It’s an amazing debut novel, and one you won’t easily forget.