The world is not tame.
People forget that. The glossy brochures for state parks show nature at its most photogenic, like a senior picture with all the pores airbrushed away. They never feature a coyote muzzle-deep in the belly of a still-living deer, or a chipmunk punctured by an eagle’s talons, squirming as it perishes in midair.
If you’re quiet in the woods long enough, you’ll hear something die. Then it’s quiet again. There’s no outrage about injustice, or even mourning. One animal’s death is another’s dinner; that’s just the way it is. What remains will go to the earth, yesterday’s bones sinking into today’s dirt..
and that’s how you open a book.
i expected to like this book because mindy mcginnis and survival stories are chocolate and peanut butter, but it turned out to be even more aligned with my personal tastes than i’d realized. not only is it a survival story, but it’s a grit lit survival story, set deep in the tennessee part of appalachia’s woods-and-mountain isolation, trailers and factories and working poor resourcefulness, with some unexpected meth. at the center of it all is wilderness queen ashley—independent and impulsive, reluctant to ask for help, not reluctant to get her hands (or fists) dirty (bloody), stubborn as balls, and entirely capable of being on her own in the un-airbrushed part of the woods.
on this occasion, she gets in a little over her head during a boozy camping trip with her friends, after catching her boyfriend reacquainting himself with his ex, and i admit—at first i was unconvinced that a girl so familiar with the do’s and don’ts of wilderness safety would find herself in this situation—getting herself lost after stomping off into the woods, barefoot and enraged, and—worth repeating—BAREFOOT, but then i remembered that inebriated teens lack judgment and i just rolled with it.
and soon, ashley herself will roll with it, allaway down a hill, becoming seriously wounded on one of those bare, bare feet and separated from her friends with no supplies—no food, no water, no tampons. because—yes—mindy mcginnis has finally written the story i have always wanted to read—a survival story that directly addresses menstruation.
mcginnis does so many things well here—there’s great character work and strong descriptions of nature, which is just bare minimum your job as an author, but she goes on to perform the more subtle operation of gradually fusing the two. ashley is a little messy, in the way of teenage girls—reactive and hotheaded (one of the first things she does when she finds herself in her predicament is to get pissed off at a squirrel; throwing leaves at him and calling him a dick), while nature is its own kind of messiness, uncultivated, amoral, ungovernable and not even a little bit impressed by temper tantrums. ashley is introduced into this environment as other, but as the days pass and she travels deeper into the woods, further away from civilization, she becomes absorbed into the wildness—just another creature struggling to survive (or not), feeding and being fed upon in nature’s relentless cycle.
eating a tick engorged with your own blood is some serious circle of life umami.
ashley is knowledgeable without being infallible, and her abilities are realistic and commensurate with her background and experience, details of which surface throughout the book. every part of her past has something to contribute to her fight for survival—her poverty taught her to ignore hunger, her cross-country training taught her to push her body past the pain, her father and her wilderness mentor taught her…all of the outdoorsy things—and she draws upon all of it, stacking up skills like building blocks in a—let’s call it capability stratum—of brain, body, and spirit that give her a much better chance than i’d ever have of making it through. did i mention she’s barefoot?
this pretty much sums up our ashley:
…the scar on my calf, the remnant of a deep cut from the steel siding of a neighbor’s trailer that opened me down to the muscle when I was trick-or-treating, my Wonder Woman cape getting stuck in between the stacked cinder blocks they used for steps.
I pulled my sock up and told them I was fine, because they were a nice old couple that gave out whole candy bars instead of bite-size, and I’d never had a whole candy bar to myself in my life. I limped home, shoe full of blood, and ate the candy bar in the back of the truck while Dad took me to the urgent care where they charge only half what the ER does and do stitches as good as anybody else.
she’s badass, and it’s not as though she doesn’t struggle, because she certainly does, but she’s grown up with the woods as a playground (Our games were made of mud and sticks, rocks and dirt.) and as a school—learning how nature is through years of observation, then learning how to be a part of it: how to make fire, build shelter, forage, hunt, fish, track, etc. along with the skills that can be taught, she has the innate deepgut character traits of pride and stubbornness that make a person endure, against reason, fighting ’til the end. this character in this situation is so much more plausible than some other YA survival books i could name, like ohhhhhidunno (cue anger-slitted eyes) The Raft? that book features a scene VERY similar to one here, which only one of the books does right.View Spoiler »ohhhh mama possum!!! unlike The Raft, in which the stupidest character of all time manages to kill a mama AND a baby seal but can’t bring herself to eat either of ’em, your sacrifice was not for nothing. « Hide Spoiler man, that scene was so goddamn sad. but not sad AND wasteful, which is something.
the only thing i wasn’t crazy about was the coincidence-trail, wherein credulity was sacrificed for narrative appeal, and that’s fine, but i didn’t need it. what i DID need was that raccoon/buzzard story. it’s only a couple of paragraphs long, but it says everything and it’s a scene that’s going to stay in my mind for a long time, reminding me to read anything she ever writes. ooh, especially if it is a reverse-jonah story written from the POV of that fish that ashley swallowed and then immediately vomited back up—still alive—into the water. what did he take away from the experience as he swam away? what did he do with his second chance at life? did he immediately forget being in ashley’s tummy? these questions are more pressing to me than anything davey-related.
it was the perfect book to usher me in to my new way of life—my world comprised of just these walls and what even is this “outside?” oh, it’s full of hunger and wounds and possums who try to eat your bare feet? thanks for saving me from that, cuomo! it is not for me.
review to come!
From the best-selling author of “Not a drop to drink” Mindy McGinnis comes a new contemporary book about a girl who gets lost in the woods.
the whole thing could be “is it this way? nope. just trees. what about this way? hmmm—a familiar rock? let’s see what’s on the other side…” for 300 pages and i’d be content.