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Wild Life
     

Wild Life

4.5 6
by Molly Gloss
 

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In her highly original new novel, Molly Gloss delivers a rare blend of “heady cerebral satisfactions, gorgeous prose, and page-turning adventure” (Karen Joy Fowler). Set among lava sinkholes and logging camps at the fringe of the Northwest frontier in the early 1900s, WILD LIFE charts the life—both real and imagined—of the free-thinking, cigar

Overview

In her highly original new novel, Molly Gloss delivers a rare blend of “heady cerebral satisfactions, gorgeous prose, and page-turning adventure” (Karen Joy Fowler). Set among lava sinkholes and logging camps at the fringe of the Northwest frontier in the early 1900s, WILD LIFE charts the life—both real and imagined—of the free-thinking, cigar-smoking, trouser-wearing Charlotte Bridger Drummond, who pens popular women’s adventure stories. One day, when a little girl gets lost in the woods, Charlotte anxiously joins the search and embarks on an adventure all her own. With great assurance and skill, Molly Gloss quickly transforms what at first seems to be pitch-perfect historical fiction into a kind of wild and woolly mystery story, as Charlotte herself becomes lost in the dark and tangled woods and falls into the company of an elusive band of mountain giants. Putting a surprising and revitalizing feminist spin on the classic legend of Tarzan and other wild-man sagas, Gloss takes us from the wilds of the western frontier to the wilds of the human heart. “Never has there been a more authentic, persuasive, or moving evocation of this elusive legend: WILD LIFE is a masterpiece” (Kirkus Reviews).

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Gloss twines just enough intellectual fiber around the sleek cord of a great adventure story to offer up a truly satisfying read. Presented as the 1905 journal of the fictional dime novelist Charlotte Bridger Drummond, Gloss's third novel (after The Jump-Off Creek and The Dazzle of Day) tells the tale of a self-avowed feminist and Freethinker and her sojourn in the wilderness of Washington's Cascade mountains. Abandoned by her husband, Charlotte supports her five boys and her housekeeper, Melba, by churning out "romantic tales of girl-heroes who are both brave and desirable." When Melba's granddaughter goes missing in the woods, Charlotte sets out, as would her heroines, to join the search party. But after days of searching, Charlotte finds herself last, for weeks managing to survive only by insinuating herself into a family of "apes or erect bears of immense size." Knowingly, Gloss plays with one of our deepest fears--lost in the wilderness, will we be saved?--and the myths that have grown from it. Interleaved between Charlotte's notebook entries are passages she has clipped from journals (e.g., of Samuel Butler, Willa Cather, Oscar Wilde) and excerpts from her published and unpublished fiction. Inserted among these are brief scenes--portraits, really--that could be construed as Charlotte's most serious attempts to write, or as Gloss telling us what Charlotte cannot. While Gloss generates heat and humor from the friction between early 20th-century and early 21st-century attitudes, her prose is most satisfying when she describes Charlotte's housekeeper ironing or Charlotte's patient suitor batting a homemade baseball. Deep into the book, Charlotte describes the "lowbrow scientific romances" she fancies: "[M]y preference is for the writer whose language is gorgeous, whose characters are real as life, and whose stories take my poor little assumptions and give them back to me transformed." Gloss couldn't have written a better description of her own novel: the writing is gorgeous, the characters real and vivid, and the story transforming. Agent, Wendy Weil. (June) FYI: Gloss received a 1996 Whiting Award, as well as the PEN Center West Fiction Prize. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
In her third novel, Whiting Award winner Gloss (The Dazzle of Day) tackles frontier life in the turn-of-the-century Pacific Northwest. Charlotte Bridger Drummond, a young widow with five sons, struggles to find time to write the potboilers that feed her family. When her housekeeper's granddaughter Harriet disappears in remote logging country, Charlotte decides that tracking her down would be a good adventure. After all, she's a gutsy, independent woman, and the trip might provide some good research material. Charlotte's strength and determination are put to the test, however, when she herself becomes lost in the woods. Written in journal format with occasional sidebars and epigraphs, this novel both entertains and engages the reader. Without moralizing, Gloss explores the deeper meaning of what it really is to be human. Strongly recommended for large public libraries.--Laurel Bliss, Sterling Memorial Lib., New Haven, CT Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Kirkus Reviews
Cigar-smoking, feminist writer of dime-store adventure novels for women meets Bigfoot in 1905: from the author of The Jump-off Creek (1989) and The Dazzle of Day (1997). Freethinking widowed mother-of-five Charlotte Bridger Drummond lives in Washington State by the shores of the Columbia River. A prolific diarist and successful writer, Charlotte's devastated to learn of Jules Verne's death. Her housekeeper, Melba, has a sickly daughter, Florence, whose violence-prone logger husband, Homer, decides to take their daughter Harriet with him to the logging camp. Harriet subsequently disappears, amid reported sightings of strange, huge, shaggy humanoids who, the searchers surmise, may have carried the girl off. Days later, the hunt has produced no sign of Harriet, and Charlotte decides to help. Indifferent at first to the exclusively male ambiance of the logging camp—the sole other female looks and acts like one of the boys—Charlotte, unsettled by an attempted sexual assault, learns to carry a big knife. The search area is difficult country, volcanic and precipitous, riddled with lava tubes, and in bad weather Charlotte becomes separated from her search partner. Thoroughly lost, Charlotte flees from a terrifying storm, abandoning matches, boots, food. Starving and desperate, she encounters a group of huge, hairy humanoids. These gentle, shy, intelligent creatures gradually accept her presence, helping her find food as she forages alongside them, permitting her to sleep with them in the fetid warmth of their dens; she comes to share their terror of humans and the reason for that terror. Eventually, Charlotte returns home, her outlook profoundly altered: discarding trashyfantasy, shewrites beautiful, intense, profound stories. Never has there been a more authentic, persuasive, or moving evocation of this elusive legend: a masterpiece.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780618131570
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
09/28/2001
Edition description:
1ST MARINE
Pages:
274
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.62(d)

Read an Excerpt

The death of Jules Verne was reported in the morning papers—a great
loss to France and to the world. When I read this news, I confess I was
briefly startled into tears—just had to sit down and cry. Generally I
am not much of a one for tears, and so my youngest son, named Jules for
that very man, came and climbed on me, pulling at my hair and whining
the way children will do, and dogs the same way, they'll climb on you
and lick your eyes because they want things to go on being
understandable, they don't want you to sit down suddenly in a kitchen
chair crying.
I won't tolerate having my hair pulled, which my children know very
well, so I stood up and tumbled my son right out of my lap.
"Don't grab on my hair," I said, and discovered, upon sitting down
again, that I was already finished with crying. There followed a
theatrical burst of sobbing from Jules where he lay on the floor at my
feet, but as quickly done with—a long wet sigh—when I pulled him onto
my knee. He settled his bony little spine against my bosom and began to
twist a forelock of his own hair around his pointy finger while I held
the newspaper out in front of us and read:

Death Relieves Jules Verne
Calmly Foresaw His End and Discussed It with His Family
He had suffered from cataracts and deafness and diabetes, this was
something I knew. And seventy-seven. Well, it shouldn't have been a
surprise; I don't suppose it was. But something about it was
unexpected, a jolt. Indeed, he leaves large work, long years of
glorious writing; and now is dead. The world is changing, he told us,
and in my strong opinion Verne predicted very nearly every one of the
major mechanical developments of this century; his ideas have obtained
a kind of technological immortality. The world is changing but people
go on dying in the usual ways, is somewhere near what I was thinking,
now that the prophet himself had arrived at the limits of personal
mortality.
"Bird of six weeks kills her self with gas," my son read solemnly. My
children all are smart as whips, which I have written in these pages
many times, but this last one an uncommon case: not yet five years old,
but for more than a year he has been copying his letters from books and
reading to me the captions of the daily newspaper.
I looked where he pointed. "Bride," I said. "Bride of six weeks."
"What's a bride?"
"A woman with a romantic inclination which has led her into reckless
behavior."
This answer might have seemed sensible to him if he hadn't taken up
from his older brothers a mistrust of anything I am likely to say about
women. And my children are parlor artists, every one of them: he
breathed out in a dramatical fashion and tipped his head backward
against my breast, staring upward with the expectation of a revised
reply.
"A woman newly married," I said.
"What's married?"
"Enslaved to a man," I told him truthfully. At four years of age he has
no appreciation of scrupulous truthfulness nor understanding of irony,
and withal has learned from his brothers to question anything I am
likely to say about men. "Ma!" he said, in the particular way of all my
children, exasperated and demanding.
I said into his turned-up face, "When a man and a woman decide to live
as husband and wife, that's marriage. Like Otto and Edith."
He considered the idea, studying upward with his eyes evidently fixed
on the little dark caves of my nose; then he said seriously, "Like
Jules and Charlotte."
Well, boys are prone to confuse the mother with the wife; in fact,
husbands are prone to this same thing. So I only said, "No, not like
you and me. We are mother and son."
I expected him to follow this line of questioning to its next natural
point—to ask me if I had a husband, and who was he, which is related
to, but not the same as, Do I have a father, and where is he? (heard
and answered many times); but his mind does not work like mine and
shortly he had circled round again to another issue. "Why'd the bride
kill herself with gas?"
With a child as young as Jules there is not much point in carrying
scrupulous truthfulness to the edge of the abyss. "I don't know," I
said. "It may just be she was very, very sad." Both of us considered
this poor sad bride for a moment. The world is changing but people go
on dying in the usual ways. Then I said, "Get up now, I have work. So
do you. I want you to find the dog and a scissors and cut the hair away
from his eyes, but not too short, and don't poke his face nor yours,
and put the scissors away after."
This was something he had attempted without instruction on two
occasions in the recent past, for which reason I had hidden the
scissors thoroughly and cautioned the dog against cooperation. But I
had lately been wondering if Permission would cut the desirability
right out of that particular adventure, and in any case Horace Stuband
would be rowing Melba up the slough by this time, and it might be, if
Jules went on searching out the scissors for a quarter of an hour,
Melba would be standing in my kitchen tying on her apron and I'd be
locked away in the shed when the matter came to a climax.
Jules popped out of my lap with a little shout and went off at a
gallop, calling for the dog.
"Ma!" Frank said from the very air aloft. "Lightning's hid her kitties
up here, Ma, there's a hidey-hole under the eave. Look!"
Someone has taught that cat to count, is my belief, for she has never
failed to notice when we have sneaked off with the weaklings and the
crooked-born of her kittens, and she has become more and more wily with
each successive litter, determined to raise them all, runts and mutants
all, in a behavior that to my mind must be proof of the basic tenets of
Darwin, or disproof; which, I cannot as yet decide. For more than a
week my children have been looking for Lightning's new litter in places
as unlikely as sugar bowls, desk drawers, and rooftops.
"Where?" I called to Frank, and went out in the mud of the yard to see
where he was pointing from his slippery toehold on the gable of the
kitchen porch. "Oh my Lord, Frank. Can you see them? How many are in
there?"
"She's in there with them. I ain't reaching in. It smells like puke and
she'll bite a hole in me and I'll bleed to death."
I school my children as to the rules of absolute construction,
agreement of the participle, and placement of copulative conjunctions,
but ignore the colloquial as a matter of principle. Ignore, as well,
certain subjects of interest to Frank, whose inclination is to direct
people's attention toward blood, purulence, and excrement. I said,
"Just look in there, Frank, for heaven's sake. Count them."
"I don't want to put my face up there! She'll tear my eyes out and I'll
be blind."
Parlor artists, every one of them—which is something their departed
father unjustly blamed on me. "Well, then, come down from the roof and
go look for Lewis; he's left the woodpile in a jumble. Let Lightning
keep her mutant, godforsaken children, only I won't be held responsible
for what comes to pass. It's inevitable, I suppose, that a Cat Monster
will someday take over the earth."
I shook the newspaper as interjection, but having given up for now any
hope of reading the dying words of Jules Verne, I returned the paper to
the parlor, to the teetery stack at the end of the davenport bed. If
I'm to follow what is happening in the world, and what's being said
about this writer or that book, and the details not only of the book
industry but of biology and archaeology, chemistry and medicine, the
latest debates over the conceptions of Schopenhauer and
Nietzsche, and arguments to do with socialism, feminism, evolution,
eugenics, insanity, disease, not to mention what it was exactly that
Jules Verne said to his family before he died, and if I'm to go on
living three thousand miles from the centers of science and politics
and publishing, it always will be necessary to rely on a barrowload of
subscriptions to publications of all sorts, and books through the
mails. It's a very lot of reading, and for four days of each and every
month there's no keeping up, as Melba never can be persuaded away from
making a monthly visit to her daughter, Florence, in Yacolt, leaving my
children and me to manage the household without her; and since the U.S.
Post Office continues to bring my mail to the dock at Skamokawa every
day with the flood tide, the stack of unread newspapers and periodicals
always will build up during my housekeeper's monthly absence, until by
the fourth and last day it slides off the arm of the davenport bed into
a loose mountain on the floor beside it: a direct result of Melba's
stubbornness and the continuing inability of my children to manage
their lives without subvention and stewardship.
As if in perfect demonstration of this truth, I discovered Jules in the
kitchen standing on his toes on a high stool so as to peer through the
deep dust along the top of the Wilson cabinet, while his brother stood
below, jiggling the stool legs beneath him.
"Oscar, quit that. Jules, climb down from there. You won't find the
scissors in this kitchen, Jules, I've looked myself and I know for a
fact they are not here. Look out in the potato cellar for them, that
would be my advice. And failing that, try along the garden fence;
someone may have left them lying on the grass there."
"I never did," Oscar said in a righteously aggrieved way.
"Did too," Jules told him automatically, and the two of them fell to
wrestling on the kitchen floor. Oscar, at barely seven, is small enough
to present Jules, who is big for his age, with a challenging but not
impossible opponent. They wrestle daily over important matters, such as
whose arrow came nearest killing a particular Indian or slavering wolf,
and trivial matters such as who wiped whose snot on whose trousers.
"I haven't said that Oscar left the scissors out by the garden fence; I
said you ought to go look there. In fact, both of you ought to head for
the garden straightaway and search the fence line thoroughly."
I stepped around their thrashing arms and legs and began to clear away
these last four days of table scrapings. My personal belief is that a
woman's worth doesn't lie in the cleanliness of her house; and at the
commencement of each of Melba's absences I always am determined, on
principle, to let the housekeeping pile up. It is Melba's belief,
though, that a woman who neglects her home is unnatural, an abnormity
more horrible than Frankenstein's monster, and on her return there is a
particular look she will give me as she surveys the disorder. I believe
it's dread of that look that sometimes moves me at the last moment
toward a cursory sweep of the carpet, a symbolic neatening of dirty
plates.
"Ma, I can't find Lewis." Frank was breathless, roseate. "I think he's
disappeared. There's tracks and blood. I think he was maybe captured by
Indians."
"I wouldn't be surprised. But if Lewis has disappeared, Frank, it'll
fall on you, as his twin, to neaten the woodpile."
"Ma!"
I school my children as to the rules of absolute construction,
agreement of the participle, and placement of copulative conjunctions,
but ignore the colloquial as a matter of principle. Ignore, as well,
certain subjects of interest to Frank, whose inclination is to direct
people's attention toward blood, purulence, and excrement. I said,
"Just look in there, Frank, for heaven's sake. Count them."
"I don't want to put my face up there! She'll tear my eyes out and I'll
be blind."
Parlor artists, every one of them—which is something their departed
father unjustly blamed on me. "Well, then, come down from the roof and
go look for Lewis; he's left the woodpile in a jumble. Let Lightning
keep her mutant, godforsaken children, only I won't be held responsible
for what comes to pass. It's inevitable, I suppose, that a Cat Monster
will someday take over the earth."
I shook the newspaper as interjection, but having given up for now any
hope of reading the dying words of Jules Verne, I returned the paper to
the parlor, to the teetery stack at the end of the davenport bed. If
I'm to follow what is happening in the world, and what's being said
about this writer or that book, and the details not only of the book
industry but of biology and archaeology, chemistry and medicine, the
latest debates over the conceptions of Schopenhauer and
Nietzsche, and arguments to do with socialism, feminism, evolution,
eugenics, insanity, disease, not to mention what it was exactly that
Jules Verne said to his family before he died, and if I'm to go on
living three thousand miles from the centers of science and politics
and publishing, it always will be necessary to rely on a barrowload of
subscriptions to publications of all sorts, and books through the
mails. It's a very lot of reading, and for four days of each and every
month there's no keeping up, as Melba never can be persuaded away from
making a monthly visit to her daughter, Florence, in Yacolt, leaving my
children and me to manage the household without her; and since the U.S.
Post Office continues to bring my mail to the dock at Skamokawa every
day with the flood tide, the stack of unread newspapers and periodicals
always will build up during my housekeeper's monthly absence, until by
the fourth and last day it slides off the arm of the davenport bed into
a loose mountain on the floor beside it: a direct result of Melba's
stubbornness and the continuing inability of my children to manage
their lives without subvention and stewardship.
As if in perfect demonstration of this truth, I discovered Jules in the
kitchen standing on his toes on a high stool so as to peer through the
deep dust along the top of the Wilson cabinet, while his brother stood
below, jiggling the stool legs beneath him.
"Oscar, quit that. Jules, climb down from there. You won't find the
scissors in this kitchen, Jules, I've looked myself and I know for a
fact they are not here. Look out in the potato cellar for them, that
would be my advice. And failing that, try along the garden fence;
someone may have left them lying on the grass there."
"I never did," Oscar said in a righteously aggrieved way.
"Did too," Jules told him automatically, and the two of them fell to
wrestling on the kitchen floor. Oscar, at barely seven, is small enough
to present Jules, who is big for his age, with a challenging but not
impossible opponent. They wrestle daily over important matters, such as
whose arrow came nearest killing a particular Indian or slavering wolf,
and trivial matters such as who wiped whose snot on whose trousers.
"I haven't said that Oscar left the scissors out by the garden fence; I
said you ought to go look there. In fact, both of you ought to head for
the garden straightaway and search the fence line thoroughly."
I stepped around their thrashing arms and legs and began to clear away
these last four days of table scrapings. My personal belief is that a
woman's worth doesn't lie in the cleanliness of her house; and at the
commencement of each of Melba's absences I always am determined, on
principle, to let the housekeeping pile up. It is Melba's belief,
though, that a woman who neglects her home is unnatural, an abnormity
more horrible than Frankenstein's monster, and on her return there is a
particular look she will give me as she surveys the disorder. I believe
it's dread of that look that sometimes moves me at the last moment
toward a cursory sweep of the carpet, a symbolic neatening of dirty
plates.
"Ma, I can't find Lewis." Frank was breathless, roseate. "I think he's
disappeared. There's tracks and blood. I think he was maybe captured by
Indians."
"I wouldn't be surprised. But if Lewis has disappeared, Frank, it'll
fall on you, as his twin, to neaten the woodpile."
"Ma!"
"Go and ask any Indians you see skulking about whether they have seen
your brother. Look in all the mine shafts and secret caves. Follow the
blood trail. I'm serious, Frank. I want you to find Lewis and I want
Lewis to put straight the woodpile."
"Ma! He won't do it, Ma! He's out in the woods digging a bear trap and
he says he won't come."
"Go tell Lewis I'm giving his clothes to the orphans in Panama and his
pocket-knife to Oscar. Tell Lewis, since he's got bear meat to eat, he
surely won't be needing a place set for him at the supper table. And
tell Lewis that Melba is in a fine temper; if she sees the woodpile
like that, she'll box his ears off and he'll bleed to death."
Frank's face brightened; he went off to deliver these warnings to
Lewis. Oscar went off to claim Lewis's pocket-knife. Jules went off to
look for scissors in the deep grass along the garden fence. I stood
briefly in an empty room.
Just as Samuel Butler is said to have stopped everywhere and anywhere
to write down his notes, it is my habit to snatch up every moment of
quiet and solitariness for myself, to sit right down in these
circumstances and turn out a few lines, a paragraph of deathless prose,
while none of my children are underfoot: I keep a little notebook in
the pocket of every apron and wrapper for just such momentary
occasions. But I expected Melba; and I am as liable to be governed by
my housekeeper as any woman. I went on scraping the plates bitterly and
carried the pail out to Buster, who has taken up the prudent doggy
habit of hiding under the floor of the toolshed whenever summoned by a
child below a certain age.
The shores of the Columbia River at this lower end are crowded with
small and flat islands divided from one another by the narrow
slackwater of the sloughs—that is to say, by the river's back alleys as
it finds its slow way round and among the islands. Price Island and
Tenasillahe are so low lying as to be barely suitable for fish-seining
sites, but this island (having no name, and therefore just the Island)
is a great wedge of rolling pastureland and arable fields, as well as
woodlots of black cottonwood and red alder, engirt by the Steamboat,
Alger, and Ellison Sloughs. I should be surprised if the highest
hillock on the Island stands ten feet above the flood tide of an
average spring freshet, for which reason this house and several of its
outbuildings perch upon high stone piers in the hope (usually vain) of
getting through our periodic out-of-the-ordinary tides with merely
draggled skirts.
When Buster scooted out for the pail of scraps, I peered into the great
muddy vacancy beneath the shed and called, "George," for my oldest sat
in the dim dampness there, with his back reclined to the rocks of a
corner pier and his head not visible to me unless I bothered to circle
around to another corner and lean in. He said, "What," in a flat and
sullen way as if it were a reply.
"What are you doing under there? Reading a book? Consulting the stars?"
George, having the advantage of years, has long since reached an
understanding of irony, but continues without any appreciation for it.
"Ma," he said, from the very mountaintop of Impatience, "will you leave
me be."
He has gotten to be fourteen with no encouragement from me. I believe
the perfect age for any son is a certain week in his eleventh year when
he balances briefly at the triangular intersection of self-sufficiency,
unconditional love, and eagerness to please. If Science is to be
believed, nothing in the universe actually ceases to exist, but I have
begun to wonder: Whatever happens to all that affection, those years of
motherly
attachment, when a son determines to discard them?
"I'll do exactly that," I told him, and I removed the empty pail from
under Buster's nose and carried it back to the house.
At this time of year the path between the kitchen and the shed is
always a perfect trench of mud, for which reason I had gone over there
barefooted and with my hem pulled up into my belt. I've read that the
Wahkiakum and Kathlamet Indians of this coast never wore a shoe, and
the sensibleness of that has stayed with me ever since. While I stood
at the kitchen door stroking the bottoms of my muddy feet along the rag
rug, I discovered Melba standing in the front hall taking stock of the
clutter. Horace Stuband had delivered her and silently rowed himself
home.
Her look went round the rooms while her hat came off and then her
gloves. "I see you've left all the work to pile up for me," she said in
her usual way, which is Aggrieved.
Melba has failed to age well and suffers from an unlovely overbite as
well as an unsympathetic nature, but I believe I understand why men
once found her attractive. She is a small woman, under five feet in her
shoes, generous of bosom, with a waist that suggests it once was narrow
as a boy's; it would be in a man's nature to consider a woman's figure
ahead of her character. But she has made unlucky choices: two husbands
have died young, and the third, Henry, is a terrible drunkard and a
womanizer. Unlucky, too, has been her experience of childbearing: a
miscarriage, then a stillborn son, then a daughter borne hard and born
early, and a surgeon's hysterical removal of her womb. Then, I suppose,
Melba's daughter married and left the house before Melba felt herself
quite finished with raising her up; this would account for the way in
which she goes on trying to direct Florence's life from afar, in daily
letters shored up by these monthly visitations.
There is an approach I have learned from the dog, who will always pass
by a warlike cat by pretending not to notice her. "Frank has found
Lightning," was what I briskly announced. "It seems she's been hiding
her kittens in the eave of the kitchen porch roof." Melba, catlike,
received my information with a certain narrowing of the eyes and a
throaty, wordless warning; but her coat then came briskly off and was
hung upon the hook, after which she brought down her apron and tied up
the strings. So if she was briefly distracted from my insufficiencies
as a housekeeper, my purpose was served. "Frank is searching for Lewis,
who may have been killed by Indians," I said. "Oscar is in the house
playing with knives. Jules is in the garden looking for scissors.
George is lying under the shed with the dog." I went about the business
of gathering up my newspapers and digests while I delivered this
household report to Melba; and while she was still standing in the
front hall gathering up her dander, I was carrying my armload out the
kitchen door and through the mud to the shed.
Every writer needs a time and place in which to work. When some or all
of my children were yet unborn, there had been space in this house for
me to claim as my own: an unused bedroom, a sunporch, the rib-roofed
third-floor attic. But it has been a terrible task to write books
underneath the same roof with five irrepressible boys; this house is
full as a tick and peaceless. When push came to shove, I was forced to
look to other buildings for a room of my own.
When her own children were young, it had been my mother's habit to lock
herself in the outhouse with her embroidery, and in certain seasons of
the year when the deer were likely to come down into the yard to browse
the tender lawn with our cow, Mother kept a rifle with her and
developed a deadly aim from two hundred yards. I never did consider
following my mother's example, for our two-holer stands like a bastion
upon its high stone foundation and is a favorite stronghold of my
continually warring sons; they have made a particular science of
scaling its ramparts, from which vantage they ambush their unsuspecting
brothers with missiles of various kinds, or fire on their enemies with
wooden guns. I briefly gave thought to the little barn the cow stands
in to get relief from the rain, but refused it on the grounds that it's
three-sided (open to weather from the south), frequently lies in flood,
and is home to certain of Lightning's misconceived offspring. When I
first looked to the shed, it was full up with stove wood and tools and
broken things waiting there for repair, but numbered its walls at four
and had a door that would shut and latch. I instructed the boys to
bring the stove wood outside, where it was a-rowed between the stone
footings under cover of the shed floor, and our broken things out to
the yard, to rust or rot or be made over by one boy or another into a
steam launch or a cannon; and then the tools and I were able to come to
an amicable division of space. When I had fitted a lock to the inside
of the door, the place became proof against my children. Horace
Stuband, when he saw what I was doing, took it on himself to reboard
the floor against mice and mud and reshake the roof against rain and
draught. I have forty acres for no good reason except Wes had a
childish notion of himself as a Gentleman Farmer; and with Wes gone, I
have leased the greater part of these acres to my neighbor for his
cows. Of course, Stuband long has conducted himself as no mere
neighbor, instead a prospective husband, which I don't encourage; but I
accept the tangible tokens of his courtship with a sensible and silent
gratitude.
The shed is windowless and dark, hot or cold with the weather, but if
cold, Melba will send one of the boys over every long while with a
heated brick for my feet to rest on, and if hot, a cake of ice. As for
the lack of outlook, I consider I am driven inward to fanciful
mountainscapes and lost continents, and no worse for it, though in
certain weathers I find I must take a breath when I go in the little
dark room, in the manner, I suppose, of a hard-rock miner going down in
the shaft; and sometimes, coming out, I am surprised by the light, by
the absolute green of Stuband's pastures, or a sky unexpectedly huge
and blowsy with cloud, or the receding purplish ridges of the Nehalem
Mountains. This, I imagine, must be the surprise felt by someone who
comes up from years in a dungeon; or by Mountain Mary, returning from
the black heart of a volcano where she has discovered blind pygmies
living in a secret civilization.
On the other hand, I rather like the rain striking the roof of the
shed, the unpatterned drumming, and on those days there is comfort in
lantern light, the little room become snug and golden. Inasmuch as rain
is what we commonly have for weather, I am able to get along.
I climbed up the ladder to the high doorsill and while I scraped my
soles free of mud I said to George or the dog, "Don't thump around down
there while I'm at work," and someone, George or the dog, made a sound
of grievance. I toppled my papers and periodicals onto the maple
secretary which once was my husband's, lit the lamp, locked the door,
and put the chair under me. The dying words of Jules Verne
notwithstanding, it's my habit when I can escape to this study to keep
my morning hours for reading, my afternoons for writing. Being as it
was already (though barely) afternoon, I dipped the pen in the ink pot
and drove the nib across the page with a pent-up fury. "The horrible
sight," I wrote, "so clouded her mind and bound up the winds of reason
that she nearly cried quits with Fate and gave up the battle of Life."
Melba always has complained of her son-in-law, Homer, that he torments
his daughter in a man's careless way by bringing down with him from the
log camps horrid tales of Wild Men of the Woods, and so forth. I don't
believe a child is spoiled by the telling of monster stories; I've told
them myself, in such a way as to make the boys jump. But Homer will
swear every story is true, and that he has been a witness of great
barefooted tracks in the mud, twenty inches from toe to heel, and night
screaming of a bestial sort which is not the roaring of bears or lions,
which he claims he would recognize. He brings to his family gruesome
accounts of monstrous hairy men stepping forth from the shrub-wood to
crush an empty oil barrel, or bend back the iron top of a donkey
engine, or brandish an uprooted tree, and long recountings of stories
other men have told him, of women captured from sylvan picnics and
toted miles across the mountains on the shoulders of stinking man-
beasts. (Such is the nature of men, I am sure in their own camps,
outside the earshot of wives and children, these timbermen tell one
another the lascivious details of the ways in which these creatures
force their sexual attentions on captive women.)
Melba, I'm sure, wishes that her son-in-law would bring home to his
wife and daughter gentler tales of the sort she told her own young
child: St. Augustine's fables of men whose ears are large enough to
sleep in, and fanciful tales of griffins and centaurs. The Wild Man of
the Woods strikes her as altogether too near to the real, and
consequently dreadful. It is a discredited feeling in civilized
nations, but I believe we are all still afraid of the dark, and here in
this land of dark forests the very air is imbued with such stories;
indeed, the loggers had the tales first from the Indians. The realness
of them is another matter. As the woods are daylighted, and wilderness
gives way to modern advances in education and technology, I expect to
see the end of the Wild Man, exactly as faeries and gnomes disappeared
with the encroaching of the cities in Europe.
I also frankly wonder why Homer's stories remind me of certain of the
white man's fearful fictions of other races. It seems to me men always
have endowed the Indian, the Negro, the Hottentot with savagery and a
strong reek, with apelike looks and movements, and with a taste for
white women, and my own belief is that it's not a matter of other races
but a matter of fear. There is a bestial side to human nature, basic
and primitive impulses in the bodies of men which clamor for
satisfaction, and it must be a Christian comfort to ascribe such things
not to oneself or one's tribe but to hairy giants and savages. It may
be the Wild Man of the Woods is but a ghost of the wild man within.
I am forgiving of poor, dull Homer, though, inasmuch as I'm always on
the lookout for the seeds of my novels and have begun to make these
wild-man tales over, turn them quite on their backs and fill the shells
with my own turtle stew: the brave Helena Reed, Girl Adventurer, has
come face-to-face with a secret race of hairy mountain giants, and in
particular with a single example, the great and fearful Tatoosh of the
See-Ah-Tiks (whose civilization, of course, will prove more enlightened
than our own).
Today I wrote straight through—brought the dear girl to the very gates
of their great secret cavern—2,000 words in rather more than five and a
half hours. Of course, by then it was long since dark. If it suits
Melba, she will sometimes send one of my sons down with a sandwich at
midday, but she never will bring my supper to the shed; she's
stubbornly of the opinion I should quit my work as the night falls,
whether I've got to a stopping place or not. So when I went up the path
to the house, I discovered Stuband sitting with my children at the
supper table. Melba is determined that he should have a wife, and I'm
determined that it never will be me, but standing on the porch looking
through the kitchen window to the sight of my sons happily plying their
forks, and sweet, sad Horace Stuband sitting with them, neatly tipping
a glass of milk to his mustache, I admit I was pierced with loneliness.
There is something about a lighted room when you are standing outside
it in the cold night.
His hair has gone gray early, his whiskers gray, and his lean, pensive
face just short of pleasing to the eye. He is indulgent of my children
and kind with his cows, a man largely self-educated, and I believe he's
a bit in awe of me; in fact he seldom looks at me when he speaks, which
I suppose is due to abject fear; all of which may very well be good
qualities in a husband. And any woman might wish to console him for a
sad life: years ago, his baby son drowned in the bath and his wife
afterward fell into a long melancholia from which no one, least of all
Stuband, could deliver her. When a second child died on the day of its
birth, the poor woman began a habit of walking the fields and pastures
all night and falling to sleep outdoors in the daylight, very often
lying on the graves of her babies. One day she lay down in Hume
Sandersen's hay field, asleep or not, and the blades of Sandersen's new
reaping and binding machine passed over her. It always has struck me
that the woman was careful not to lay herself down in her own husband's
hay field; and that Sandersen is well known as a man of cold feeling.
People say he cleaned out his machine and went back to work the same
day.
But it's marriage I mean to avoid, not poor Stuband.
While I wiped my feet at the kitchen door I said, "Hello, boys, it's
gotten cold as hell," which was true, the mud on the path having gone
hard and glazed. Melba, standing at the stove with a pancake lifter
held up like a scepter, clicked her teeth in irritation. She objects to
my cursing, on the grounds that women should defend the purity of
children's minds. It's my argument that a child's happiness and well-
being decreases in direct proportion to the degree of his civilization.
"Snow, Ma?" This from Oscar and Jules both at once, raising their faces
to me hopefully.
We are always more likely to get rain in this quarter of the world than
snow, and I have seen winters pass here with no more than a brief
flurry in January, but Stuband, who is as childish in that way as any
of my sons, gave back the boys' eagerness. "I've seen it snow this late
in the year," he said. "Look here, boys, I've seen it snow in May. In
ninety-two, we were skating on the sloughs and driving wagons out on
the bosom of the river, it was that froze."
I placed myself on the bit of bench between the twins and lifted a
finger of mashed potatoes from Lewis's plate. "I believe you've missed
the question, Stuband," I said. "The boys want to know if there's snow
in this particular bit of cold weather, and since the sky has now gone
clear as a windowpane, I should think the likeliest answer is No."
Stuband is used to my glibness, I suppose, or might have pitched me a
crestfallen look. It was Melba, deliberately serving the boys' coconut
hermits ahead of my cold supper, who rattled the plate warningly with
the edge of her spatula.
I said to the boys, "In any case, if you're yearning for snow, you
should yearn for it on a day of the week when it will do you some
good."
"What's 'yearn'?" Jules whispered to Stuband, and Stuband, who is an
amateur reader and has taught himself the rudiments of vocabulary,
said, "It's to pray after something." George corrected him mildly. "Ma
doesn't pray. She's a Freethinker." Stuband then said, "It's to set
your heart for it," and got to the real point: "School's called off if
it snows."
This brought a light into the faces of the two youngest, quite as if
the news pertained to the moment, though an entire Sunday divides them
from their next possible encounter with the schoolhouse. In these
isolated precincts the school term is intermittent at best, commencing
when a teacher can be found and ceasing when one cannot, so my sons
have become more than a little spoiled from home schooling. When the
six of us are left to our own devices, I teach the children Thucydides
& Co. in the mornings, and then—having encouraged them to form museums,
to collect fossils and butterflies and to dissect worms—I let them run
wild in the woods and fields for the rest of the day while I scribble,
which is, more or less, the curriculum famously advocated by Seton and
his fellow Woodcrafters as being advantageous to the active minds and
bodies of the young.
Melba at last brought round my plate, and while I bolted down the cold
roast and mashed potatoes, the lima beans, the new bread and butter,
the boys brought up memorable snowfalls and then memorable teachers.
The Island School, having lost a string of teachers to the custody of
lonely bachelors, has lately taken to hiring girls whose principal
qualification is their seeming unsuitableness as brides—hard-featured
and repellent girls of vicious disposition and shiftless intelligence.
I expect my sons to become wise through teaching one another the canny
sufferance of inept teachers.
Stuband kept out of this discussion—he has a quiet center, which I
suppose is due to the difficulties of his life—but then he cleared his
throat and made an attempt to speak across the boys to me. "I'm glad to
see the sky clear off some," he said. "There's no good to plow while
this rain keeps up." He said this in an interested way, but one of his
shortcomings is a notable lack of conversational themes. The boys were
arguing about whether Miss Parrish kept a thumbscrew in her desk
drawer, and whether the little vial in the deep pocket of her duster
contained itching powder or arsenic, and I'm afraid my ear must have
been taking this in with somewhat more attention than poor Stuband's
weather talk. He went a few words further, seeming to speak to the fork
as he pushed it along the edge of his empty plate; and then reversing
his fork to travel the opposite way around the china, the poor man
lapsed silent.
In the following silence—well, not silence, as the older boys began to
give the younger an elaborate account of a girl whose fingernails had
turned black from a teacher's hammering them with a handy piece of
stove wood—I studied the shape of Stuband's big gray mustache, a
smoothly down-turned and pleated crescent very like the horns of an
Arctic musk ox, and when he became aware of this, he looked up. There
are times when I feel under his scrutiny: as if he has taken me into
his hands like a book and is studying the pages.
I was driven to say, "You know, Stuband, there are some very strange
things going on in the world today, and the world is flying forward
just as fast as it can." His look became startled, so that I was freed
to plow ahead. "Encke's comet," I said. "Blindness cured by a
miraculous drug. Moons circling Jupiter. A tunnel under the Hudson
River. We shall soon be piping natural gas from the sloughs into our
houses for lights and for cooking." I then began at some length on the
future of agriculture: in our lifetime, plants rendered microbe-proof;
farmers raising isinglass roofs over their fields, just as if they were
circus tents—but miles in expanse—and growing their crops under those
transparent covers without the suffering of bad weather.
I suppose I thought this would leave him fazed. He is always dim and
earnest with respect to my knowledge of the future and of the advances
of Science; it is principally for this reason I suffer Melba's practice
of asking him in for dinner. But when he had considered things—drawing
one horn of his mustache up into his mouth thoughtfully—he said, "I
wonder the wind wouldn't take hold of such a roof, Mrs. Drummond. A
circus tent won't stand much wind, I know that."
Finding that our interview had turned suddenly interesting again, Oscar
said, "I saw the roof fly off the Renegade Queen's Wild West Fair and
Bavarian Exposition!" On the instant, the other boys pushed in with
their own recollections of that memorable event, when we all had stood
in the streets of Astoria and watched the striped and flounced pavilion
of the Renegade Queen sail over the roofs of town and flatten quietly
on the backs of thirteen sheep, who were caught by surprise standing
dreamily in their own field. It was Frank who remembered: those ewes
had gone into a kind of nervous prostration from which they never had
recovered, and word had reached us afterward that the farmer had been
forced to slaughter every one of them to relieve them of their anxiety.
I kept to the point of my argument: "Not isinglass," I told Stuband,
"which I meant only as a similitude. We should expect to see the
invention of an artificial resin, clear as glass but plastic in its
consistency, like putty or wax, which will therefore hold up to the
wind and keep out every kind of scourge from cutworms to rabbits. The
world is in a terrific flux, Stuband, and astonishing things are in the
air all around us."
The boys by then had gone on from talk of slaughtered sheep to other
memorable and bloody animal encounters: a hog that had run amok in the
neighborhood with the butcher's knife stuck in its throat; a dog whose
eye was pierced with a porcupine quill; a drowned gopher found
inexplicably high in the crotch of a hemlock tree. Finally they had
come round to arguments about the length of time a headless chicken
might go on running around a yard spurting blood from its Melba at last
brought round my plate, and while I bolted down the cold roast and
mashed potatoes, the lima beans, the new bread and butter, the boys
brought up memorable snowfalls and then memorable teachers. The Island
School, having lost a string of teachers to the custody of lonely
bachelors, has lately taken to hiring girls whose principal
qualification is their seeming unsuitableness as brides—hard-featured
and repellent girls of vicious disposition and shiftless intelligence.
I expect my sons to become wise through teaching one another the canny
sufferance of inept teachers.
Stuband kept out of this discussion—he has a quiet center, which I
suppose is due to the difficulties of his life—but then he cleared his
throat and made an attempt to speak across the boys to me. "I'm glad to
see the sky clear off some," he said. "There's no good to plow while
this rain keeps up." He said this in an interested way, but one of his
shortcomings is a notable lack of conversational themes. The boys were
arguing about whether Miss Parrish kept a thumbscrew in her desk
drawer, and whether the little vial in the deep pocket of her duster
contained itching powder or arsenic, and I'm afraid my ear must have
been taking this in with somewhat more attention than poor Stuband's
weather talk. He went a few words further, seeming to speak to the fork
as he pushed it along the edge of his empty plate; and then reversing
his fork to travel the opposite way around the china, the poor man
lapsed silent.
In the following silence—well, not silence, as the older boys began to
give the younger an elaborate account of a girl whose fingernails had
turned black from a teacher's hammering them with a handy piece of
stove wood—I studied the shape of Stuband's big gray mustache, a
smoothly down-turned and pleated crescent very like the horns of an
Arctic musk ox, and when he became aware of this, he looked up. There
are times when I feel under his scrutiny: as if he has taken me into
his hands like a book and is studying the pages.
I was driven to say, "You know, Stuband, there are some very strange
things going on in the world today, and the world is flying forward
just as fast as it can." His look became startled, so that I was freed
to plow ahead. "Encke's comet," I said. "Blindness cured by a
miraculous drug. Moons circling Jupiter. A tunnel under the Hudson
River. We shall soon be piping natural gas from the sloughs into our
houses for lights and for cooking." I then began at some length on the
future of agriculture: in our lifetime, plants rendered microbe-proof;
farmers raising isinglass roofs over their fields, just as if they were
circus tents—but miles in expanse—and growing their crops under those
transparent covers without the suffering of bad weather.
I suppose I thought this would leave him fazed. He is always dim and
earnest with respect to my knowledge of the future and of the advances
of Science; it is principally for this reason I suffer Melba's practice
of asking him in for dinner. But when he had considered things—drawing
one horn of his mustache up into his mouth thoughtfully—he said, "I
wonder the wind wouldn't take hold of such a roof, Mrs. Drummond. A
circus tent won't stand much wind, I know that."
Finding that our interview had turned suddenly interesting again, Oscar
said, "I saw the roof fly off the Renegade Queen's Wild West Fair and
Bavarian Exposition!" On the instant, the other boys pushed in with
their own recollections of that memorable event, when we all had stood
in the streets of Astoria and watched the striped and flounced pavilion
of the Renegade Queen sail over the roofs of town and flatten quietly
on the backs of thirteen sheep, who were caught by surprise standing
dreamily in their own field. It was Frank who remembered: those ewes
had gone into a kind of nervous prostration from which they never had
recovered, and word had reached us afterward that the farmer had been
forced to slaughter every one of them to relieve them of their anxiety.
I kept to the point of my argument: "Not isinglass," I told Stuband,
"which I meant only as a similitude. We should expect to see the
invention of an artificial resin, clear as glass but plastic in its
consistency, like putty or wax, which will therefore hold up to the
wind and keep out every kind of scourge from cutworms to rabbits. The
world is in a terrific flux, Stuband, and astonishing things are in the
air all around us."
The boys by then had gone on from talk of slaughtered sheep to other
memorable and bloody animal encounters: a hog that had run amok in the
neighborhood with the butcher's knife stuck in its throat; a dog whose
eye was pierced with a porcupine quill; a drowned gopher found
inexplicably high in the crotch of a hemlock tree. Finally they had
come round to arguments about the length of time a headless chicken
might go on running around a yard spurting blood from its neck hole,
and plans were being made to conduct a scientific test of the question.
"I believe you must be right about that, Mrs. Drummond," Stuband said
to me, and he spread his mouth again so the edge of his teeth parted
the mustache in an abstracted smile. "I never have felt so in a flat
spin."

Copyright © 2000 by Molly Gloss. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.

Meet the Author

MOLLY GLOSS is the best-selling author The Hearts of Horses, The Jump-Off Creek , winner of both the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award and the Oregon Book Award, The Dazzle of Day, winner of the PEN Center West Fiction Prize, and Wild Life, winner of the James Tiptree Jr. Award.

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Wild Life 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
SheilaDeeth More than 1 year ago
Set around the turn of the (last) century, Wild Life by Molly Gloss presents the “found manuscript” of a novel or diary, and leaves the reader to decide what’s true and what’s not. If the story’s to be believed, there are more things hiding in the forests and mountains of the Pacific Northwest than modern man has seen (though loggers saw a lot). If not, there’s a perfect example of an “unreliable narrator” telling this tale. But you’ll have to read it yourself to decide. In the early 1900s, pulp fiction sold well enough, though women authors lacked the opportunities given to men. Narrator Charlotte Bridger Drummond supports her family by writing, struggles to balance her time, and never seems quite clear of who or what she is. Certainly she wants to be more, and when a child goes missing she jumps at the chance to share the experience of searching the trackless forest, a task that soon has her sleeping at the loggers’ camp and listening to tales of strange scary creatures who just might steal the helpless away in the night. Cigar-smoking, bicycle-riding Ms Drummond is, of course, not helpless, and man might be scarier than beast. Ms Drummond observes, thinks, comments, and writes in her journal. Soon she’s amazingly real as readers are pulled into the dark and light, and the scents and sounds that surround her. Her past is shrouded in the mystery of a husband’s death. Her future is clouded by her children’s needs. But her present becomes a wonderful trek of bravery or fantasy, presented with newspaper cuttings, historical factoids made real, and a wealth of personal musings. Does this novel blend history and fantasy? Is it a real-world tale where nature and monster combine? Or is it magical realism, believed but not entirely believable, born of the fictional author’s need to be more than the real world allows? Perhaps there are mysteries inside each of us, natural selves that are finer than myths would tell, and hidden strengths that are more than duty and love. Wild Life invites readers into the wild of nature and self, hides as much as it reveals, and offers a deeply enthralling, curious read. Disclosure: A friend gave it to me and thought I might enjoy it. I did.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ryder pads up to Magpie and sniffs his coat. "Hi!" He barked cheerfully.<p> Wren plunked herself down and watched her brother shyly.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
He walks in his black fur perfectly groomed his blue eyes looked up at stella
Adaptoid More than 1 year ago
I'll be reading everything she's written.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago