The Vaster Wilds (2023)
by Lauren Groff
“Groff’s novels often account for a character’s entire life, propelling the reader through a cascade of keenly articulated, outward-facing presents, rather than cogitations on the past. “The Vaster Wilds” is much narrower in time frame, taking place over just a few weeks, and more urgent in its objectives. Pursued by threats real and imagined, the girl is driven by a sovereign hunger, and Groff is lyrically, painstakingly attentive to the textures of her craving. The girl finds a nest of baby squirrels and roasts them on a spit; she swallows oysters she finds on the shoreline; she collects berries; she eats grubs; she snuffles mushrooms, only half caring if they are poisonous or hallucinatory. At one point she catches a glut of salmon and smokes what she can’t eat right away, carrying it with her in her sack. She happens upon a beehive and braves its defenders to steal the honey within. For the reader, each paltry meal, each brief respite, is felt as a physical relief.”
Moszley, Fiona. “Lauren Groff’s Latest Is a Lonely Novel of Hunger and Survival.” The New York Times Book Review. September 8, 2023.
I. “The moon hid itself behind the clouds. The wind spat an icy snow at angles.
“In the tall black wall of the palisade, through a slit too seeming thin for human passage, the girl climbed into the great and terrible wilderness.
“Over her face she wore a hood drawn low, and she was slight, both bony and childish small, but the famine had stripped her down yet starker, to root and string and fiber and sinew. Even so starved, and blinded by the dark, she was quick. She scrabbled upright, stumbled with her first step, nearly fell, but caught herself and began to run, going fast and over the frozen ruts of the field and all the stalks of dead corn that had come up in the summer already sooty and fruitless and stunted with blight.
“Swifter, girl, she told herself, and in their fear and anguish, her legs moved yet faster.
“These good boots the girl had stolen off the son of a gentleman, a stripling half her age but of equal size, who had died of the smallpox the night before, the rash a rust spreading over the starved bones. These leather gloves and the thick cloak the girl had stolen off her own mistress. She banished the thought of the woman still weeping upon her knees on the frozen ground in the courtyard inside that hellish place. With each step she drew away, everything there loosened its grip on the girl.
“Yet there was a strange gleam upon the dark ground of the field ahead, and as she moved, she saw it was the undershirt of the soldier who a fortnight earlier had been caught worming his body slow from the horrors of the fort and toward the different horrors of the forest. He had made it halfway to the trees when in silence a shadow that had lain upon the ground grew denser, grew upward, came clear at last as the fearsomest of the men of this country, the warrior two heads taller than the men of the fort, who made himself yet more terrible by wearing upon his shoulders outstretched a broad dark mantle of turkey feathers. He had lifted with one hand the creeping fearful soldier by his hair and had with a knife cut a long wet red mouth into the man’s throat. Then he dropped him to spill his heart’s blood into the frozen earth and there the dead man lay splayed ignoble. All this time, he had lain unburied, for the soldiers of the settlement had become too weak and too cowardly in their hunger to fetch the body back.
“She had passed the dead man and his reek had drawn itself out of her nostrils and she was nearly to the woods when she stumbled again, for the thought of these two men gave rise to thoughts of other men who lurked perhaps in the woods, men out there hidden and awaiting her. And now, as she peered before her into the dark of the forest, she saw a man crouching in ambush in ever deeper blacker shadow of each tree, perhaps a man with a knife or an ax or an arrow and cold murder in his eye.
“She stopped her running for a breath, but she had no choice, she took her courage up again and she ran on.”
“It was perhaps minutes, perhaps hours, there was no way to tell, but a long thick expanse of time spent running northward up the stream bank, when the girl saw a deeper darker shine near where her boot fell, a softness of the ice beneath, and she knew it to be water freed from its frozen crust, openly flowing. She bent and took off her leather gloves with her teeth and pressed her unworking hands between her legs until they had thawed enough to bend, then she opened the sack that she had been carrying in one stiff fist, reached in and took the pewter cup she had stolen, dipped it into the running water, and drank deep. The cold sliced down the center of her like the tip of a knife. It made her ache. Her teeth chattered in the bones of her skull. Her stomach, which had been empty these four days, protested at its new fullness of water. She replaced the cup and tied the sack to her waist, lifting her cloak and gowns to put it against her skin so she could feel it on the flesh of her body and would be comforted by having it always near. She wanted to sink down into the small heap of snow to sleep, her head swam and pounded, but she could not do this she knew, and she pressed herself on again, forward, away, farther.
“And as she ran she prayed in her soul: O god, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and light riseth up for the godly, grant me in all my doubts and uncertainties the grace to ask what thou wouldst have me do that the spirit of wisdom may save me from all false choices and that in thy light I may see light and in thy straight path may not stumble.
“She listened for anything, for the low moan of a night bird as emissary of the divine, a shifting quality of wind that would speak its will to her, but in response there were only the noises of her passage and the cold wind playing against the disinterested forest.
“And thus she ran again, and while running as soft as she could, she remembered the solace of song and thought perhaps it could heat the edges of her fear until it melted within her.
“So only inside herself she sang as brightly as she knew how, the spring clad all in gladness doth laugh at winter’s sadness fa la la la la la la la la la la and so on.
“She knew many songs, of course, but this was the only one that came forth to meet her, quite a strange absence of song there was inside her mind, as once a lifetime ago she had been a dancing quipping singing little fool and hundreds of songs she had known. But she knew that a fool could only exist where there was indulgence and freedom enough for laughter and so it was natural that in flight all of her other songs had dissolved. Still, this one song gave what comfort it could, though in such exigency such comfort was small.”