70 Following


Wild Life by Molly Gloss

Wild Life: A Novel - Molly Gloss

This is an excellent work of literary historical fiction, set in Washington State in 1905. It is an epistolary novel, comprised primarily of the diary entries of one Charlotte Bridger Drummond, a fictional novelist inspired by real female writers of the period. Also included in its pages are some of Charlotte’s short stories and essays, as well as letters and newspaper clippings. It is all excellently-written, in a strong voice that reads authentically for the period.


When we first meet Charlotte, she is hard at work, juggling the demands of her five young sons with her writing. Though she lives on a remote farm along the Columbia River, Charlotte is drawn to the intellectual life, keeping up with world events and technological changes, and she does her best to shock her neighbors with her unorthodox opinions and masculine dress. She supports her family by writing pulp fiction, but also keeps abreast of the literary world, particularly the reception of women’s writing. She’s bold and independent, though she can also be insensitive and arrogant; in short, she’s a vibrant, flawed heroine whom I took to immediately.


But I was not altogether satisfied with the direction of the plot. (Warning: this review will discuss some events late in the book, but no more than all the blurbs do.) Charlotte becomes involved in a search for a child lost in the deepwoods, and gets lost herself, until, on the brink of starvation, she encounters a band of Sasquatch-like creatures. Or does she? – the opening pages invite the reader to question just how much of her tale is real. Usually I would find this suggestion off-putting, but oddly enough, it works here. What I liked less was the slightly sinister wilderness survival story that consumes the second half of the book; Charlotte is such a great character when rubbing up against her family and society – and her descriptions of her town and community are so strong and detailed – that sending her alone into the wilderness seems a bit of a waste. That said, Gloss deserves credit for telling a unique, genre-bending story, and I found it engaging throughout.


Aside from the diary, the additional pieces add a great deal of depth and resonance to the story. I loved Charlotte's musings on her reading and writing life, and identify with both her attraction to genre fiction and her skepticism about the literary quality of most such works. Her essays about gender, particularly in the literary world, were also a treat; Gloss states in her Author's Note that many of Charlotte's ideas were taken from the writings of real women at the time, but we still discuss these same issues today. I wasn't quite as taken by the short stories – those imagining the interior lives of people around her are perhaps supposed to make us a little uncomfortable, even while they reveal a degree of understanding that Charlotte rarely shows in her interactions with others – but they allow us to see the transformation in her writing after her journey, adding another dimension to the story.


In the end, I would absolutely recommend this book to those who enjoy literary fiction. It's clearly well-researched, bringing its setting to life, from the physical world of river and forest to the workings of turn-of-the-century logging camps. And it is very well-written, with believable characters, a unique plot, and a strong thematic exploration of the relationship between people and nature, ourselves and the unknown. I intend to read more of this author's work.