Calla Fletcher was two when her mother took her and fled the Alaskan wild, unable to handle the isolation of the extreme, rural lifestyle, leaving behind Calla’s father, Wren Fletcher, in the process. Calla never looked back, and at twenty-six, a busy life in Toronto is all she knows. But when her father reaches out to inform her that his days are numbered, Calla knows that it’s time to make the long trip back to the remote frontier town where she was born.
She braves the roaming wildlife, the odd daylight hours, the exorbitant prices, and even the occasional—dear God—outhouse, all for the chance to connect with her father: a man who, despite his many faults, she can’t help but care for. While she struggles to adjust to this new subarctic environment, Jonah—the quiet, brooding, and proud Alaskan pilot who keeps her father’s charter plane company operational—can’t imagine calling anywhere else home. And he’s clearly waiting with one hand on the throttle to fly this city girl back to where she belongs, convinced that she’s too pampered to handle the wild.
Jonah is probably right, but Calla is determined to prove him wrong. As time passes, she unexpectedly finds herself forming a bond with the burly pilot. As his undercurrent of disapproval dwindles, it’s replaced by friendship—or perhaps something deeper? But Calla is not in Alaska to stay and Jonah will never leave. It would be foolish of her to kindle a romance, to take the same path her parents tried—and failed at—years ago.
It’s a simple truth that turns out to be not so simple after all.
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The Simple Wild
November 15, 1993
Wren sets the two navy suitcases next to the stroller and then reaches for the cigarette precariously perched between his lips, taking a long, slow drag. He releases smoke into the frigid air. “Just these?”
“And the diaper bag.” I inhale the musky odor. I’ve always hated the smell of tobacco. I still do, except on Wren.
“Right. I’ll go and get that,” he says, dropping the cigarette to the snowy ground and crushing it with his boot. He clasps his callused hands together and blows into them as he rushes back out to the tarmac, shoulders curled inward, to where the Cessna that delivered us here awaits its hour-long flight home.
I quietly watch, huddled in my plush, down-filled coat against the icy wind, fiercely holding onto the resentment I’ve been carrying for months. If I don’t, I’ll quickly be overwhelmed by the pain of disappointment and impending loss, and I won’t be able to go through with this.
Wren returns and settles the hefty red bag on the asphalt, just as a grounds worker swings by to collect my belongings. They exchange pleasantries, as if this is just any other passenger delivery, before the man shuttles my things away.
Leaving us in tense silence.
“So, what time do you get in?” Wren finally asks, giving the perpetual brown scruff on his chin a scratch.
“Noon, tomorrow. Toronto time.” I pray Calla can handle ten hours of traveling without a meltdown. Though, that might distract me from having my own meltdown. At least the next plane is substantial, unlike the tiny things Wren insists on flying. God, how on earth did I ever think marrying a born-and-bred bush pilot was a good idea?
Wren nods to himself, and then pulls our sleepy daughter out of the stroller and into his arms. “And you? Are you ready for your first big plane ride?” His wide grin for his daughter makes my heart twist.
For the hundredth time, I wonder if I’m being the selfish one. If I should grit my teeth and bear the misery, the isolation of Alaska. After all, I made the bed I’m running from now. My father was quick to remind me of that when I admitted to my parents that life with Wren isn’t as romantic as I’d convinced myself it would be. When I admitted that I’ve cried at least once a day for the past year, especially during the painfully long, cold, dark winter, when daylight is sparse. That I hate living in the last great American frontier; that I crave being close to my family and friends, and the urban bustle of my childhood. In my own country.
A deep frown line forms in Wren’s forehead as he plants a kiss on our happy, oblivious seventeen-month-old’s nose and sets her onto the ground. She struggles to toddle around, her stocky body bundled in a thick bubblegum-pink snowsuit to keep the icy wind at bay. “You know you don’t have to leave, Susan.”
As quickly as I’d been softening, I harden again. “And what? Stay here, and be miserable? Sit at home with Calla under a happy lamp while you’re out, risking your life for a bunch of strangers? I can’t do it anymore, Wren. Every day is harder than the last.” At first I thought it was postpartum depression, but after months of flying back and forth to Anchorage just to talk to a therapist and refill a prescription for antidepressants that did little more than make me sluggish, I’ve accepted that it has nothing to do with hormones. And here I was, naïve enough to think Alaskan winters would be manageable, having grown up in Toronto. That being married to the love of my life would outweigh the challenges of living here, of having a husband whose chances of dying at work on any given day are alarmingly high. That my adoration for this man—and the attraction between us—would be enough to overcome anything Alaska threw at me.
Wren slides his hands into the pockets of his navy checkered down vest, focusing his attention on the giant green pom-pom atop Calla’s knit hat.
“Have you at least looked into flights over Christmas?” I dare ask, my last-ditch attempt.
“I can’t take that much time off; you know that.”
“Wren, you own the company!” I throw an arm toward the plane he brought us to Anchorage in, to the ALASKA WILD logo across the body. There are plenty more with the same emblem that make up the Fletcher family business, a charter company left to him after his dad passed away five years ago. “You can do whatever the hell you want!”
“People are counting on me to be here.”
“I’m your wife! I’m counting on you! We are counting on you!” My voice cracks with emotion.
He heaves a sigh and rubs the wrinkles from his brow. “We can’t keep going ’round in circles like this. You knew when you married me that Alaska is my home. You can’t just change your mind now and expect me to up and abandon my entire life.”
Hot tears burn against my cheeks. I furiously smear them away. “And what about my life? Am I the only one who’s ever going to sacrifice in this relationship?” I never planned on falling head over heels for an American charter pilot while I was in Vancouver for a bachelorette party, but I did, and since then, it’s been all on me to keep us together, and I’ve done it with the reckless fervor of a woman madly in love. I moved across the country to British Columbia and enrolled in a horticultural program, just so I could be closer to Alaska. And then, when I found out I was pregnant, I dropped out of school and moved to Wren’s hometown, so we could marry and raise our child together. Only, most days I feel like I’m a single parent, because Wren’s always at the damn airport, or in the air, or making plans to be.
And what am I left with? Dinner plates that grow cold from waiting, a toddler who asks for “Dada” incessantly, and this inhospitable subarctic soil that I’m lucky to grow weeds in. I’ve just kept on giving this man parts of me, not realizing that I was losing myself in the process.
Wren looks past me, watching a commercial plane as it takes off from the nearby international airport. He looks desperate to be back in the air, away from this never-ending fight. “I want you to be happy. If going back to Toronto is what you need to do, then I’m not going to stop you.”
He’s right; we can’t keep doing this, especially if he’s not willing to sacrifice anything to keep me around. But how can he just let us go like this? When I announced that my ticket was one-way, he did little more than grunt. Then again, I shouldn’t be surprised. Expressing feelings has never been one of Wren’s strengths. But for him to simply fly us here and set our belongings on the cold, hard ground next to us . . .
Maybe he doesn’t love us enough.
I hope that my mother is right, and a few months without a wife to cook his meals and warm his bed will jog a change in perspective. He’ll realize that he can fly planes anywhere, including Toronto.
He’ll realize that he doesn’t want to live without us.
I take a deep breath. “I should go.”
He settles those sharp gray eyes on me, the ones that ensnared me four years ago. If I’d had any idea how much heartache the ruggedly handsome man who sat down next to me at a bar and ordered a bottle of Budweiser would cause . . . “So, I guess I’ll see you when you’re ready to come home.” There’s a rare touch of hoarseness to his voice, and it nearly breaks my resolve.
But I hang onto that one word to give me strength: “home.”
That’s just it: Alaska will never feel like my home. Either he truly doesn’t see that or he simply doesn’t want to.
I swallow against the painful ball in my throat. “Calla, say goodbye to your daddy.”
“Bye-bye, Da-da.” She scrunches her mitten-clad hand and gives him a toothy grin.
Obliviously happy as her mother’s heart breaks.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Simple Wild includes discussion questions and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. If you were to move to Bangor, Alaska, what luxury would be the hardest for you to live without?
2. Calla and Jonah both feel strongly about the benefits of their preferred living environment. What are some of the advantages of living in a city? What are some of the upsides of living in a more rural area?
3. The book’s title, The Simple Wild, is echoed in characters’ descriptions of Alaska. Discuss what you think “simple” means in this context. Why do you think the author chose this title? What is its significance in the novel?
4. Calla goes through a number of life-changing experiences, including meeting her father in person for the first time since she was a toddler, traveling around rural Alaska and seeing how people live there, her father’s illness, and meeting Jonah. How do Calla, Jonah, and Wren’s characters develop over the course of the book as a result of these experiences?
5. For Wren and Susan, their respective desires about where to live were deal breakers, despite their love for each other. What are your deal breakers? Are there things about your life that you would be unwilling to let go of if your partner or a potential partner wouldn’t or couldn’t agree to them, no matter how much you loved that person?
6. Simon serves as a voice of reason for Calla and is able to remain objective and compassionate, despite being emotionally involved both as her stepfather and as Susan’s husband. Although he doesn’t share his feelings with Calla, what do you think this story was like from his perspective?
7. As Calla gets to know her father, there is a lot of discussion of regret, both his own regrets in life and the possibility that Calla could regret not spending more time with him if he doesn’t survive his illness. Do you think Calla’s decisions helped alleviate remorse on either side, or is it in some way unavoidable for each of them to experience?
8. After Jonah’s plane crashes, Calla’s mother, Susan, tells her about the constant anxiety she had about Wren’s safety in his work as a bush pilot. Jonah plans to continue to work as a bush pilot for the rest of his life. How do you think this will affect his relationship with Calla in the future? Will Calla develop the same anxieties her mother held?
9. Ultimately, Jonah attempts to find a compromise that he and Calla will both be happy with. Do you think they will be able to make their relationship work?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Invite your book club members to attend dressed for the Alaskan wilderness, complete with flannel and rain boots, and have someone bring jerky to snack on (though perhaps not muskrat jerky).
2. When Jonah hides Calla’s beauty products, she is forced to adjust to going out without makeup on. If you usually wear makeup, consider challenging yourself to go a week without it. Do activities you would normally wear makeup for: running errands, getting together with friends, even dressing up for a party or event. Share with your book group how the challenge made you feel. Did your awareness of it or feelings about it shift over the course of the week? Were there any times you felt more self-conscious? More confident? What were other people’s reactions to your makeup-free week?
3. Consider reading another of K.A. Tucker’s page-turning novels for your next book club meeting. For another compelling contemporary romance, your group is sure to love Until It Fades, or if you’re interested in a thrilling romantic suspense novel, you can check out Keep Her Safe. Visit K.A. Tucker’s website www.katuckerbooks.com to learn more about her and her books, or follow K.A. Tucker on Twitter @kathleenatucker, or Facebook at www.facebook.com/K.A.Tucker.Author.