"Wild Life" by Molly Gloss

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In “Wild Life” Molly Gloss weaves the remarkable story of Charlotte Bridger Drummond in the early years of the 20th Century. Raising her sons along the Columbia River in a southern Washington state just emerging from frontier status, Mrs. Drummond embraces her husbandless state for the independence it gives her. She harbors resentment for her disappeared husband, and has never quite accepted his presumed death. It pleases her more to be left behind and put upon, than let herself don the weeds of a grieving widow.

Charlotte, willfully independent, writes adventure novels about strong, independent, young heroines, and sometimes resents the distraction of trying to raise her five sons. She has help in that area, and in the necessary housework; Melba is her live-in housekeeper and cook, and holds the accepted notions of femininity and motherhood which rule those times. When Melba’s four-year-old granddaughter goes missing at a logging camp to which her father took her, Charlotte leaves home to join the search parties. Here is when the story really takes flight.

Ms. Gloss’s early chapters display a perfect early 20th-Century language and societal attitude through the voice of a dissenter. The early chapters echo Twain throughout. However, the arch and ironical tone slowly fades as Charlotte goes to the wilderness in search of young Harriet, where the necessities of living rough and how the men cope with them come to the fore. The fantasies Charlotte has entertained about heroically finding Harriet in her first couple of days evaporate quickly as the drudgery of the actual search sets in. When Charlotte herself becomes lost in the forest, rough times become absolutely desperate. Lucky for us, Ms. Gloss has given her heroine a supply of paper and pencils so she can keep her sanity in the one way that can give her days structure and her mind her own: she writes. Such is her state that she begins to speculate which day she will die; at this extreme juncture she meets and is adopted by a family of forest primates, of an unknown species, which saves her life.

The interlude of her salvation starts a new flight of introspection in which she must reexamine her notions of family, the differences between the sexes, and the distinction between humans and animals. Ms. Gloss nails these speculations perfectly. Of course, we are forced to consider these issues alongside our heroine; the author shoves her and us toward new subtleties and a new honesty in how we look at the world. These issues are presented in a kind of multi-media format, in which the main body of the narrative is interweaved with contemporaneous news articles, excerpts written by the author before and after her adventure, and long asides about characters. The whole hangs superbly together, and displays the author’s command of news and attitudes, scientific knowledge and thought of the day. More important, however, Ms. Gloss gives us the inward journey of a real human heroine, through harrowing adventure, and the even greater challenge of a changed and refocused heart. The author gives us a remarkable, truly moving work in “Wild Life,” and I urge you to take it up.

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