Monday, May 11, 2020

Wild Life by Molly Gloss

I admit I was pierced with loneliness. There is something about a lighted room when you are standing outside it in the cold night.
Good morning readers. Although I was already aware of what a fine writer Molly Gloss is from having read her novel Jump-Off Creek, I must admit I was stunned by the depth of her wisdom in her 2000 novel Wild Life. Writing as Charlotte Bridger Drummond, or simply C.B.D., Gloss creates a character who is tough, independent, and a fully fledged feminist. Set in the early 1900s in a small logging town on the borders of Oregon and Washington, Charlotte is a widowed mother of five boys who supports her family by writing women’s adventure novels. Charlotte is fiercely independent; she wears men’s clothes, smokes cigars or a pipe in public, eschews domestic tasks as far as possible, and creates for herself a private writing space, a room of her own.

Charlotte is irreverent and often very humorous in her descriptions of men and of their laughably absurd views of the weakness of women.  The men in the logging camps are fond of telling tall tales about Wild Men of the Woods, and while Charlotte, herself, is not opposed to to wild-west tales, she is scornful of the way men tell their stories as attempts to scare women and children.

The novel is as much about writing as it is about the adventure Charlotte goes through when she joins a search party looking for a young girl, Harriet, who has been lost in the woods and who loggers claimed was carried off by a huge, hairy ape-like animal. As the story begins to unfold, it transpires that Charlotte, herself, becomes separated from the rest of the search party.

Quoting Samuel Butler as she begins to describe her life lost in the wild, Molly Gloss begins to prepare her readers to suspend disbelief and allow her to spin her story.
When anything in [my books] is strange and outre, it is probably drawn straight from nature as close as I could draw it; when it is plausible, there is probably no particular and especial foundation for it.
Even the domestic help Charlotte has hired to free her up from many domestic tasks is outwardly disdainful of Charlotte’s lack of femininity,. and scolds her for spending so much time away from her children and locked in her writing shed.
She was half inclined to cry at being unable to devote herself entirely to her work, though she considered the work only a means to an end, which was the support of her family. In later years she would discover that the work was everything to her—everything—but now she tossed and tossed, trying to explain and defend something that shifted and was elusive; and at such times she has secretly—horrifyingly—wished for a calamity that would free her of the weight, the otherwise inescapable burden of her maternity.
If I had been born a man, I would have created for myself a world full of work and egoism and imagined that my whole life belonged to me. But since I was born a woman, I suffered the usual girlish desires and aspirations; and I believed that my life should eventually be joined to a husband.

Both a mother and a wife by the age of twenty, and then within ten years a widowed wife and mother of five boys. All of this novel is peppered with stories and quotes from women about what they are expected to write about.

I have said nothing yet about Charlotte’s life while lost in the wild, and I don’t intend to reveal much of that story to you. Suffice it to say that Charlotte , starving and near dead is taken in by a family of human-like creatures who allow her to hunt and gather with them and who cause her to question her previous beliefs about the relations between humans and creatures of the woods. If you are a reader wholly opposed to fantastical literature, then this may not be the book for you, but I would also remind you of the splendid books of Ursula K. Le Guin, and invite you to suspend for a time your skepticism.

Gloss may well be describing herself, or Le Guin, or countless other women writers  as she speaks in the voice of C.B.D.:
As a thoroughgoing Feminist and a woman who has herself thrown over the traces of domestication as much as can be done without risking arrest, I do my best to swim against the tide. For heroine of a scientific romance, I will always choose the scientifically inclined daughter or sister of a world-renowned anthropologist; and for the western romance, look for a girl who can ride and shoot, a ranch girl born and raised in the West…
Although I, myself, have in the past rejected most fantasy writing,  in the past couple of decades I have been more open to fantasy fiction as a vehicle for environmental issues, for women’s fiction, and simply for the delight of the stories.

This is a book I could well have reviewed simply by stringing together quotes from the novel. It is a wonderfully humorous novel as it pokes fun at men and holds up to the light expectations of women not only of the West or of days gone by, but of us-here-now.

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