FALL 2023

American Mystery

‘The Vaster Wilds’ By Lauren Groff

Riverhead, September 2023, 272 pp.

Lauren Groff’s new novel, The Vaster Wilds, is a survival story: in the early seventeenth century, a girl flees the starving, disease-ridden settlement at Jamestown, Virginia and makes her way alone through the wilderness.

The novel is also a revision of the settlement narratives of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the myth of Manifest Destiny in which white settlers have God (and capitalism) on their side. In Groff’s version, as the girl ventures further into the wilderness, she begins to wonder why the men in the colony are so intent on dominating the world and people around them. What might have been different if the English colonists had arrived in Virginia willing to coexist with both native peoples and native landscapes?

In flashbacks, we learn that the girl, who only knows that she is between sixteen and eighteen, was plucked from a London poorhouse as a child and brought to live with a wealthy family whose mistress treated her like a pet: the girl is cosseted and indulged, well-fed and, with one significant exception, treated gently. When the family patriarch, a handsome but appalling minister (like Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter but without even his shreds of conscience), decides the family should emigrate to Jamestown, the girl is forced to accompany them on the journey. As a pauper who has the misfortune to be a girl, she has no choice.

Over the course of her short life, the girl has been called, variously, Lamentations, Girl, Wench, and Zed, but the novel’s tight third-person narrator refers to her mostly as “she.” We are tethered to her consciousness and to the immediate difficulties of survival. To keep herself alive she has a pewter cup, a knife, a hatchet, boots, and two blankets; to keep herself sane, she begins to think of these items as sentient beings and travel companions. In publicity materials for the book, Groff uses the word “titration” to explain how she calibrated what happens as a body suffers ever more extreme hardship; the word also works for how the girl’s past is revealed: slowly, like small shifts of a kaleidoscope, until the full horror of why she fled Jamestown is revealed.

In its use of language and its critique of America’s origin story, Groff’s novel finds its precursor in the work of Cormac McCarthy, particularly Blood Meridian, that brilliant and bloody reimagining of the myth of westward expansion so central to America’s vision of itself. McCarthy’s endlessly detailed portrayals of torture and murder, perpetuated for the most part by whites against non-whites, illuminate a masculine world in which there is no hope for tenderness, only death, murder, or madness. Like McCarthy, Groff doesn’t spare us the gruesome reality of suffering—the girl’s feet at one point are described as “blackened and swollen and ragged, nails gone, smallest toes useless . . . wounds thick and bleeding blood and yellow pus.” At another point, the girl thinks about all the ways she’s seen people die: “from the bilious fluxes, the shitty fluxes, the blood fluxes, the brackish swellings . . . fevers both fecal and malarial as well as the tertian and quotidian and pestilent fevers, from the surfeit of choler and the surfeit of blood . . . from the arrows of the men of this place and the rope of the hangman.” Like McCarthy, Groff revels in language, in the “sheer crunchy iambic delight,” as the author put it in her press materials, with which she brings the girl’s world alive.

As the girl goes deeper and deeper into the wilderness, she moves further and further from the teachings of the church.

But unlike McCarthy, Groff views gender as central to how the girl perceives violence. It is English men who inflict pain, on other men and on women, including the girl. And while the girl herself experiences extraordinary suffering, she also experiences deep tenderness, with a sailor on the crossing from England to Virginia, and with her mistress’s baby daughter. Bess, the baby, is “brainless” but with a “sunny” disposition. She becomes the girl’s responsibility; they adore each other, although Bess cannot speak, and the girl is devastated when Bess “decides not to live” after they reach Jamestown. It is in the appalling aftermath of that loss that the girl decides to flee the colony.

As the girl goes deeper and deeper into the wilderness, she moves further and further from the teachings of the church, even wondering whether Adam’s God-given dominion over the creatures of the earth does “not mean the right to kill or suppress the fish, the fowl, the cattle, and every living thing.” Inside the “god of her people,” she thinks, there is an insatiable hunger to dominate, and anything that cannot be dominated needs to be destroyed. Once she is free from the chokehold of Jamestown, she stumbles on an even more radical proposition: that perhaps “the people of this place had their own names for things.”

In the girl’s self-imposed exile and her subsequent realizations about the destructive power of patriarchy, we might hear an echo of the saga of Anne Hutchinson, who was expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for challenging the views of the Puritan ministers. Hutchinson posed a dual threat to the colony’s de facto theocracy: she defied the gender rules of the church by holding Bible meetings in her house and, even more radically, she used those meetings to suggest that people might not need clergy in order to establish their own relationships with God. She was tried for heresy and banished, eventually finding refuge in the more liberal colony of Rhode Island.

Groff’s protagonist shares a version of Hutchinson’s fate but not her faith. In fact, the girl’s journey could be seen as an arc away from religion and towards a view of the world in which the divine exists solely in nature. Despite the extreme hardships the girl endures, she also experiences moments of extraordinary beauty, including several references to “purple mountains,” which, in a novel so attentive to language, clearly conjure the alternative American anthem, “America the Beautiful.” Originally a poem written by Katherine Lee Bates, the lyrics celebrate the country’s landscape rather than military victory.

In the novel’s celebration of landscape, there are also echoes of Walt Whitman’s extravagant language. A passage marking the change of seasons could almost have been lifted from Leaves of Grass: “The spring unleashing its winter-coiled power, the joy of living. And the tender green of the new grass, the green of bursting vibrancy. And the gold of the old grass of the last year, the gold of sustenance.” The girl’s spiritual rebirth within the glory of the landscape is also a re-thinking of our contemporary relationship to the earth. Instead of domination, the novel urges us to feel the “goodness of the wind as it brushes against us. And feel it now, so soft, so eternal, this wind against your good and living skin.”

Spiritual ecstasy is also at the heart of Groff’s last novel, Matrix, about the twelfth-century poet Marie de France who, as a prioress of a powerful abbey, creates an alternative to male authority. The girl at the center of The Vaster Wilds has similarly ecstatic experiences in the wilderness, although unlike the poet, she has no way to record them. As these fleeting revelations accrue, the novel’s closing passages contain audaciously long sentences, tumbling strings of words that I found myself reading aloud so as to enjoy their feel in my mouth. Our ability to approximate such experience with language is one of the transcendent qualities of humans. We are reminded, too, that we are still prisoners of the Western insistence on dominion, and, as a result, our own survival hangs in the balance.

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