This memoir has a mythic feel. Poet Kim Barnes' In the Wilderness, the story of her childhood in a family of loggers, begins with her early 20th century forefathers and mothers and traces her years in Idaho as an 11-year-old healer in the Pentecostal church, a teenage malcontent and finally a woman returned to live with her family in the forest where she was raised. If the story of her hale and hardy predecessors -- who wore floursack slips and slept seven to a bed -- sounds like standard pioneer material, it is. But Barnes transforms her family's stormy ties to the soil in a narrative filled with striking, often grotesquely comic images.
Barnes' voice is just as sharp when it comes to describing her own struggle between a sort of sexy piety (she and Brother Lang "dipped like dancers" as she was baptized) and what are actually very normal, teenage "bad girl" desires. "When my father had left for work and my mother's insistent footsteps finally fell silent, we'd pull the tacks from the poster's corners and flip it over: there, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper rode their Harley, gloriously doomed, flipping off the world in perpetuity." Barnes charms her way out of cliche, turning typical angst into something a little stranger.
The book has its flaws. Barnes didn't grow up in literary surroundings, and could have included a bit more about how she wound up becoming a writer. In the last chapter, Barnes covers this part of her life in shorthand, but I was left wanting more. In the end, her eye for exacting detail makes up for it. When someone kills two cougars for dinner, she and a boy she has a crush on watch the kettles as the "skulls bubble up, the sockets gelatinous as poached eggs at first, then hollow." Barnes's talent lies in her ability to shift quickly between bold and deliciously ugly moments (as with those skulls), and clean and quiet ones, as when young Barnes watches her mother welcome her father home from a day in the woods. She imagines her mother thinking, "Even here in the deep forests of Idaho, in the wilderness, I can give you what you desire, what you love the most." -- Salon
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Barnes here recalls growing up in the '70s as a child in a born-again religious family and her struggles between her faith and her need for acceptance by her more worldly classmates. Her father was a logger in the Idaho lumber camps, and her earliest memories were of family joy in the forests. But a different kind of wilderness soon enveloped them when her father lost his job and they moved to town, where he worked as a trucker, joined the Pentecostal church and was transformed into a withdrawn, authoritarian figure whose faith required the subservience of his wife and two children. Barnes was an exemplary child until she was 12, when, jealous of the liberties her classmates enjoyed, she entered a secret life of rebellion: questioning her faith's tenets of salvation and damnation, of male authority and female submissiveness; tempted by vanity; confused by her burgeoning sexuality. Her parents discovered her plan to run away and sent her to live with friends whose kindness helped her recapture her faith and return to her family-though not without unresolved conflicts. Nonjudgmental and generous, Barnes's portrait of her parents, the fundamentalist milieu and her own spiritual questing is deeply moving. (May) FYI: This book was the recipient of the 1995 PEN/Jerard Fund Award for a work in progress by an emerging female writer.
Barnes is not old, but her life has spanned several epochs. She remembers the pristine wilderness of the Idaho timberlands before the building of dams and the advent of clear-cutting, when her father, a logger, hunted and fished to feed his young, hardy family. Life for Barnes as a child was straightforward, rugged, and noble. And then her parents found God, the unforgiving, ever-demanding God of the Pentecostals, and all spontaneity and beauty were banished. Barnes' coming of age was not a proud passage, but a catalyst for fear and paranoia. It was 1970 and the culture at large was exploring every imaginable form of liberation, but Barnes was swathed in dowdy clothes and forbidden every normal comfort and outlet. Her rebellion was inevitable, as was the harsh punishment she endured and her correspondingly deep sense of guilt and unworthiness. But Barnes survived and gained wisdom from those trials of the spirit. Her unique memoir articulates, with healing intensity, the commingling of joy and oppression inherent in her faith, the fury and love she felt for her parents, and the peace she finally found in marriage and in nature.