The wild without and within: A review of Wilderness

  • Sunrise at Olympic National Park in Washington.

    Joel Rogers
 

Wilderness pulls no punches. The novel's descriptions are so visceral, the main character's struggles so gut wrenching, that it demands an equally full-bodied response from its reader. Within the book's pages are violence, yes, and death, sickness and guilt –– all the hard things. But the most powerfully moving moments are those in which dark themes are momentarily vanquished, and the narrative's thin stream of hope, redemption and humanity rises to the surface.

In his first novel, Pacific Northwest writer Lance Weller traces the path, both physical and psychological, of one Abel Truman, a Civil War veteran who, after barely surviving Virginia's horrific Battle of the Wilderness, makes his way to the Pacific Northwest. An avowed hermit for decades, he lives in a solitary shack on the edge of the sea, scarred in mind and crippled in body. After years of isolation, he is joined by a stray dog, who reminds him of his almost-forgotten ability to feel and care. Despite his age and illness, Abel embarks on a journey over the Olympic Mountains to his former home in the East, hoping to heal his emotional wounds, many of which he received before the Civil War ever started.

Weller's prose is lyrical, vivid, unflinching and at times vaguely archaic. He has a masterful knack for description, zeroing in on a character's subtle gesture, the quality of light over a battlefield, the unmistakable smell of approaching death. A woman does not simply stop working in the kitchen when she hears a noise outside, "she sets the paring knife down near the wooden bowl of apples, touching the blade with two fingers to turn it from the table edge." Weller works wonders with juxtaposition as well: Amid the terror of battle, a character finds "the cool, stinging wind of a single bullet passed close by his cheek is like the first quick kiss of a shy girl." Like a poet, Weller creates his own words when necessary: "nightdark," "aftersweetness," "prayerwise."

The story unfolds slowly, delicately, in a series of flashbacks, haunted by a terrible sense of inevitability. As Abel recalls the ghosts of his past –– terrified soldiers, a dead wife and child, the freed slave who paid the ultimate price to save Abel's own life –– the depth of the man's loss and loneliness becomes clear. That makes his discovery of the compassion and humility inside him all the more poignant. Abel confronts the wilderness, both in the physical form of the landscape around him and the overgrown thickets of his memory, and the wilderness offers up, finally, a kind of raw and ragged salvation.

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