Here are brilliantly rendered stories that explore themes of loss and discovery, of the gap between youthful dreams and mature reality, of how we connect with others and with the sometimes hidden part of ourselves. In each of these tales Margaret Atwood deftly illuminates the single instant that shapes a whole life: in a few brief pages we watch as characters progress through the passions of youth into the precarious complexities of middle age. By superimposing the past on the present Atwood paints interior landscapes shaped by time, regret and life's lost chances, endowing even the banal with a sense of mystery. Richly layered and disturbing, poignant at times and scathingly witty at others, the stories in Wilderness Tips take us into the strange and secret places of the heart and inform the familiar world in which we live with truths that cut to the bone.
It begins with a woman trying to get a businessman to make a charitable donation over dinner. It's obvious that she's willing to do whatever it takes to secure his donation for her cause -- a battered women's shelter. In fact, she lets us know that this is not the first time that she's used her sexuality to get what she wants from a man. She's never married and doesn't think she ever will. She's not sure that she wants to. But there is some ambiguity there. As the story progresses, we learn that she and her friend, Molly, started adult life as young, idealistic attorneys who were going to help women and change the world in the process. She describes Molly as optimistic and caring -- someone who sees the best in others and believes that she can make things better for them. As the story continues, we learn that Molly eventually marries and has children, but things are not as they should be. She considers leaving her husband and discusses it with her friend. I can't really say any more about the story without giving too much away. However, I think it's interesting that the author decides to put an educated, middle class, feminist into this particular situation. I think society often assumes that women who find themselves in destructive relationships are often poor and uneducated. They stay with their man because they have no other options or don't know what else to do. That's one of the things that I really like about Atwood. She doesn't always follow the conventional wisdom. She looks at things from all angles and her characters are multidimensional.
Though feminist in nature, her writing doesn't paint all men as evil and all women as victims (thank goodness!). It's much more complex than that. No matter what I've read by Margaret Atwood -- novel, short story, poetry -- she always makes me think.
They all took place in Canada, with some containing native Canadians and some transplanted from England or Europe. They almost all featured promiscuity and sexual affairs, often as the norm, and they all had one hard earned life lesson to impart. The tales spanned the decades from “the war years” of World War II up until the late eighties and early nineties and all of the changes that took place in that time. The women’s movement took special prominence in these stories as they described the changes they in particular experience over that span of sixty years of human history, especially the changing face of womanhood and feminism.
Of the stories that struck me the most there was "True Trash", illuminating the difference between the "dot dot dot" of romance in the war years and the sexually explicit romance of modern day. "Hairball" was also a disturbing look at the changing face of womanhood and what women have had to give up in order to get ahead. "Death by Landscape" was one of the more horrifying stories about a camping trip gone horribly wrong and the insight, or perhaps just blind stabbing hope, it left one of the campers with. "The Age of Lead" was especially poignant because it wasn't until long after this book was published that the bpa-lining in plastic containers was discovered to be bad and that was just more of the same of the over arching theme in this story, making this one incredibly relevant to modern day.
While the themes may have been dark all of these stories had an inner kernel of truth that both you and the characters cannot escape. Time goes by fast, change happens, choices have to be made but it is ultimately you that has to live with the consequences.
It's the forties look," she says to George, hand on her hip, doing a pirouette. "Rosie the Riveter. From the war. Remember her?"
George, whose name is not really George, does not remember. He spent the forties rooting through garbage bag heaps and begging, and doing other things unsuitable for a child. He has a dim memory of some film star posed on a calendar tattering on a latrine wall. Maybe this is the one Prue means. He remembers for an instant his intense resentment of the bright, ignorant smile, the well-fed body. A couple of buddies had helped him take her apart with the rusty blade from a kitchen knife they'd found somewhere in the rubble. He does not consider telling any of this to Prue.
These stories are pretty much all about middle-aged white English Canadian women in the context of Canada, Canadian identity, and various points in Canadian history (mostly 20th century). There are different sorts of women and I found a lot of them utterly fascinating. But the little details of growing up Canadian -- things like historical events, name brands, and the maze of the Toronto underground that people raised elsewhere have no context for -- are really wonderfully drawn. I'd be happier if there were more of a social conscience (beyond white, mostly-middle class feminism), but it's unfair to judge the social conscience of a book published in 1989 by the attitude shifts of the past twenty years.
Still, some fascinating characters... :)
But even though I had a connection with the locations of many of the stories, I felt the stories themselves lacked the punch of her more recent collections such as A Stone Mattress. Not bad, but not memorable.
There are only two stories in Wilderness Tips that I can remember and that were of some interest to me - Uncles and The Age of Lead.
The latter caught my interest because it makes reference to the Franklin expedition, which is an event I have some interest in.
Other than that, the stories are well written and quite subdued. Each deals with some quiet desperation involving its main characters. There are no punches or fireworks, but a long and slow unfolding of the story or theme.
There's not a lot that actually happens in each story, but each one has undercurrents and they hint at hidden depths. It's an intriguing set of stories.