This year marks a century since Congress passed legislation establishing the National Parks Service: The National Parks service is older than womens suffrage in America. This simple thought is mind boggling. Much has changed in the last 100 years, and while feminism still has much to accomplish (equality is still a goal and not a reality), 2016 is largely a good time to be both a woman and a National Park in America. However, the simple fact that we needed legislation to protect the rights of the wilderness and women indicate that both were historically underestimated and undervalued, seen as property reliant on man for survival.
Women still fight stereotypes about not belonging in the wilderness (although the “Wild” phenomenon had a positive impact). Collective culture acknowledges the prowess of some specific women, like Annie Oakley, but only while making her a caricature and anomaly. Never mind female pioneers who faced the frontier alongside husbands, or alone. Never mind Annie Smith Peck, who scaled Mt. Shasta, and the Matterhorn in Switzerland in the 1890s, or Rachel Carson, whose environmental writing endures today. Who remembers Hallie Daggett, who, when hired as the lookout at Eddy’s Gulch Lookout Station in Klamath National Forest in 1913, was the first woman employed by the Forest Service.
Fiction this summer defies these conventions: “Breaking Wild” by Diane Les Becquets, and “Marrow Island,” by Alexis Smith are two pulse-racing reads about strong, capable women making their way through the wilderness.
Sometimes we have to get lost to find our way home, but being lost can turn deadly– fast. When Amy Raye Latour, a 32-year-old wife and mother, goes missing on a hunting trip, ranger Pru Hathaway feels in her bones that the young woman will do anything to stay alive. “Breaking Wild” is the story of two women who take to the wilderness, and come to terms with the grief of hearts broken too young. Will Pru find the truth about Amy Raye’s disappearance?
Who can explain how the broken pieces of a life fit together? The forest which swallows Amy Raye, in East Douglas, Colorado, is both real and metaphorical. As the days pass Pru accumulates evidence of Amy Raye’s likely last moments, and her infidelities. Amy Raye began wandering long before getting lost, even long before she met her husband.
Pru has her own past, left in a bloodied field back in Missouri. She lives a quiet life in Rio Mesa, Colorado with her teenage son. As an archaeological law enforcement officer with the Bureau of Land Management, and owner of the only certified search-and-rescue dog in the county, Pru is more than at home in the woods. Her investigation feels authentic. Her understanding of the wilderness (the ways which animals behave, the habits of the woods, how to read weather patterns), and tracking skills feel genuine as well.
The chapters alternate between Amy Raye, in the third-person, and Pru, who narrates her story in the first-person. The switch emphasizes Amy Raye’s isolation, and heightens the urgency of the narrative. The goriest scene in this suspenseful fiction involves a woman butchering a deer in the field, a refreshing change, despite the bloody details. The story is well-paced, consuming and believable.
In many ways, whether we embrace the wilderness or not, we are all just waiting for the big one—an earthquake, drought, death sudden and permanent, earth without humans. But what happens when the big one, while shattering the known, isn’t quite as big as we thought? Disasters, both natural and man-made, pepper history and the present. What is clear in “Marrow Island,” is that humans have a strong instinct to live, they are resilient, and feel a deep pull to rebuild.
Lucie is just a child when she loses her father and childhood home to an earthquake in the San Juan Islands. They thought the big one was upon them, but the hardest was still to come—surviving and learning to live without, a father, her best friend, the islands she loved so much. Lucie has her mother however, and she grows up to become a journalist (perhaps a job ferreting out truth is a subconscious backlash from never knowing the truth of her father’s death, as his body was never found).
Decades later, a letter from her childhood best friend, Katie, pulls Lucie back to the islands where a colony has risen from the rubble of the earthquake and subsequent meltdown of the local refinery. Katie’s letter piques both Lucie’s heart and her journalist’s instincts. What she finds is terrifying and beautiful, surreal and disturbing yet undeniably real.
I forgive them for trying to kill me. The story unfolds in two time periods—Lucie on the island visiting the colony, and Lucie years later living in the woods with her park ranger boyfriend. The alternate narratives propel each other forward in a mesmerizing dance. What happened on the island, and who is the mysterious hiker in the woods? Smith’s novel is haunting, suspenseful, and acts as an elegy for the planet.
Lucie, Katie, Pru, and Amy-Raye are all beautiful women, perfect in their imperfections, facing their fears and using their heads and hearts to fight to survive. Both novels explore the female psyche, taking place largely inside the minds of Pru, Amy-Raye, and Lucie, with the wilderness as both a setting, and metaphor. The National Parks Service and womens suffrage may both be a century or less old, but women in the wilderness is a troupe older than time–after all, we refer to Earth as mother.
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