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Lauren Groff's survivalist novel 'The Vaster Wilds' will test your endurance, too

Riverhead Books

Robinson Crusoe, generally considered to be the first novel in English, is also the granddaddy of survivor sagas. Crusoe-the-castaway spends decades on his proverbial desert island, crafting what actually turns out to be a very pleasant existence: His days are spent catching turtles and goats; making clothes, furniture and a canoe; even journaling.

Lauren Groffhas said that Robinson Crusoe is one of the inspirations for her new historical novel The Vaster Wilds; but, her heroine's extreme adventure in the forest primeval of pre-Colonial America makes Crusoe's stint on his island seem like an all-inclusive vacation package at Club Med.

The Vaster Wilds is set in the fledgling Jamestown colony around the winter of 1609–1610, a period known to historians as the "starving time" because over 80% of the colonists died of disease and famine. Groff's main character doesn't have a name: She was abandoned at birth in England and, then, at age 4, she was removed from the poorhouse to work as a servant for a prosperous family. She's mostly called "girl," "wench" or worse, and she was simply taken along — like baggage — when the patriarch of the family she works for is lured by visions of the wealth of the New World.

The novel opens on what's possibly the girl's first autonomous act: She escapes from the primitive fort at Jamestown. We're told that: "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." Why she runs away is a question that hovers in the chill air until the very end of this novel, which turns out to be a test of endurance for the girl and for us readers, as well.

Equipped with a stolen hatchet, flint, warm cape and boots courtesy of a boy who's just died from smallpox, the girl runs. The girl runs and runs because, as she tells herself, "If I stop I will die." She runs through "needles of ice" that turn into "downsifting snow," which she's thankful for because it covers her footprints.

One of the very early satisfying twists in this story occurs when the sadistic soldier who's dispatched to capture the girl is quickly engulfed by the violence lurking in the wilderness. Thanks to Groff's omniscient narrator, we readers know the soldier is a goner, but the girl herself never catches on that she's running from nobody.

As the girl runs, sheltering in exhaustion in caves and hollowed out tree trunks, she survives close brushes with wild beasts, as well as two Indigenous men who pursue her, and a "half man, half beast" crazed Jesuit priest. Here's a tiny sampling of Groff's extended description of what 40 years alone in the wilderness have done to this priest:

I always like to check out Groff's latest novels because she's such an evocative writer who always sets herself the challenge of doing something different: The domestic fiction of Fates and Furies was followed by the medieval historical fiction of The Matrix, which, in turn, is now followed by the eerie survival story of The Vaster Wilds.

What would it be like to run away, without knowing if there were any place to run to? That's the question that seems to impel The Vaster Wilds. With vivid exactitude, Groff dramatizes the answer: The ordeal would be terrifying, raw, brutal and, it must be acknowledged, kind of exhausting in its repetitiveness. Because without a destination in view, all that running starts to seem kind of aimless.

Groff tries to offset the monotony of this marathon run of a plot by including flashbacks to the girl's hard life in England and, less successfully, by having the girl formulate clumsy cultural commentary about the "machinery of domination" that was the English settlement of the New World. The deliverance offered by The Vaster Wilds may be more realistic than Robinson Crusoe's fortunate flagging down of a passing ship, but perhaps it's not too sentimental to wish that all that running could have ended in something more.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.