The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff: A review
Lauren Groff's latest gives us the story of a young servant girl who journeys with her mistress and the mistress's second husband from England to America in the 17th century. The girl's name is a bit of a mystery. She is sometimes referred to as Lamentations and sometimes called Zed. She just refers to herself as Girl.
On the trip from England, the girl meets and learns to care for a Dutch glassblower who is gentle and kind but she becomes separated from him and has only his memory to comfort her in her perilous life.
The girl's duties mostly involve caring for her mistress's severely disabled daughter, Bess. They arrive in Jamestown, Virginia, and we see them there in the extremely harsh winter of 1610. It is a time of starvation and sickness with people dying all around them. This teenage orphan servant girl makes the momentous decision to flee into the wilds.
She gathers the few items that she can and runs away. She has only her innate instincts to guide her, but her plan is to try to reach French-controlled territory and find a fur trader who will marry her and take her to France. So she heads north, hoping to reach Canada. "If I stop I will die," she tells herself, and she pushes on almost beyond endurance.
She has distant sightings of Powhatan and Piscataway people but doesn't risk approaching them. She sees monstrous bears and manages to stay out of their way. She also manages to elude a sadistic and insane Jesuit priest who haunts her passage through the land.
Finding enough food is always a problem. She is always hungry and to stave off her hunger pains she eats grubs, mud, and whatever she can lay her hands on.
Though completely uneducated, she is a clever and ingenious girl and she does have a lot of knowledge of the natural world which stands her in good stead on her journey. Every day is a challenge just to stay alive and she must call upon every bit of knowledge and instinct she has to meet that challenge.
This was a hard one for me to read because I identified strongly with the girl in her struggles. I felt her pain and her terror in her fight to make it through one more day. Lauren Groff has managed to deliver us a visceral reading experience about the strength of the human spirit and the will to survive. This is her fifth novel. I think she has the hang of it now.