"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.

"The Train of Small Mercies" by David Rowell

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On a sweltering June day in 1968 a New York Central Railroad train traveled from New York to Washington carrying the casket containing the remains of New York’s recently assassinated senator, Bobby Kennedy. The train ran slowly and behind schedule, because of tragic accidents in New Jersey, and we learn of this in David Rowell’s remarkable and clever debut, “The Train of Small Mercies,” but this serves as backbone and binding arc to the vivid stories of a small but diverse group of ordinary Americans in the throes of living their own lives.

We glimpse these lives perfectly through Mr. Rowell’s versatile and energetic treatment. There is the young civil servant who has installed a pool in his back yard as a way of capturing some magic he feels must be fading from his life. We read of the fifth-grade boy recently returned to his home after being kidnapped by his father. A mother suffers when her daughter is injured in a fall; a clever and attractive would-be nanny assumes her interview with the Kennedy clan will not proceed; and the newly-hired NY Central porter spends his first day on the job on the funeral train; and perhaps most pointedly, a very young Vietnam veteran, just having returned home, must try to adjust to life after losing a leg in combat.

It’s hard to imagine a better cast to present this crystal-clear cross-section of America at that moment. Mr. Rowell takes on and very beautifully handles each of these diverse characters – their outlook and opinion, their strivings, their day-to-day concerns. There is just the right balance here of the timeless – two parents fretting over their injured daughter in the hospital – and the period-specific – the despair felt by blacks and other idealists in the face of the out-of-control violence in America, reeling from a third assassination in four-plus years, and the second in just a few months.

This is a balanced, mature work of fiction, which always takes me by surprise in a debut piece, somehow. Mr. Rowell snaps his shutter on a set of fictional events bound together by the Kennedy funeral train, and then steps back. He offers no solutions; each narrative is left almost as arbitrarily as it is taken up, and this strikes me as exactly correct. Mr. Kennedy, a hero only slightly less important to blacks than Reverend King, was killed before truly accomplishing any of the goals he had promised to his constituency, and the lives of mourning supporters and opponents alike are no less open-ended in our open-ended United States. I wonder if Mr. Rowell means the title in an ironic sense – not every set of characters enjoys a merciful turn in these events – they’re the minority, in fact. But running through each narrative is the thread of the redemption that people expected could come of Senator Kennedy’s efforts. And therein lie some of the yearned-for mercies. And certain of the characters simply hope their lives will benefit in more prosaic ways, and it is a very clear measure of Mr. Rowell’s success that we share the hopes right alongside them.

The author has provided a very apt and accurate portrait of America at a singular time, and in the process, has blessed us with an equally singular debut novel.