Poet Kim Barnes grew up in northern Idaho, in the isolated camps where her father worked as a logger and her mother made a modest but comfortable home for her husband and two children. Their lives were short on material wealth, but long on the riches of family and friendship, and the great sheltering power of the wilderness. But in the mid-1960's, as automation and a declining economy drove more and more loggers out of the wilderness and into despair, Kim's father dug in and determined to stay. It was then the family turned fervently toward Pentecostalism. It was then things changed. In the Wilderness is the poet's own account of a journey toward adulthood against an interior landscape every bit as awesome, as beautiful, and as fraught with hidden peril as the great forest itself. It is a story of how both faith and geography can shape the heart and soul, and of the uncharted territory we all must enter to face our demons. Above all, it is the clear-eyed and moving account of a young woman's coming of terms with her family, her homeland, her spirituality, and herself. In presenting Kim Barnes the 1995 PENJerard Fund Award for a work-in-progress by an emerging female writer, the panel of judges wrote that "In the Wilderness is far more than a personal memoir," adding that it stands "almost as a cautionary example of the power of good prose to distinguish whatever it touches." Indeed, In the Wilderness is an extraordinary work, courageous, candid, and exquisitely written.
Kim Barnes writes with the fluidity of water. Her words flow and paint a seamless picture. In In the Wilderness Barnes was able to portray her family and home life without compromise. She didn't shy away from revealing short-comings and failures. She didn't try to gloss over the hardness of her upbringing or surroundings. At the same time, despite the difficulties, the love and respect she has for her childhood is abundantly clear. Another aspect of the memoir that struck a chord was the naked truth about sex and the realities of coming of age. Barnes addresses her first preteen crush as openly as discussing what she wore to school. It is stark and unflinching. In some places I am reminded of Ariel Moore (do you remember her? She was a Reverend's daughter from the movie 'Footloose' in 1984).
I felt a deep sadness for my lost childhood, and hers.
Her books are more than that, too, as she goes into depth about her family's participation in a fundamental Christian church, and her experiences as a child and teenager. I do not share this with her and I feel she was abused by this church, and her father's unwavering commitment to his version of the Christian bible, where women are told to follow their men, and submit with no talking. Women find their glory, according to this view, by submitting to their husband's leadership, no matter how misguided.
I don't want to make this review a review of my thought about all that. I'll just say that Kim Barnes does a remarkable job of describing her upbringing and her path out of there.
However, the only reason I finished it was because I was trying to read myself to sleep, and this was boring enough that I thought it would work. Unfortunately, not quite, I did manage to finish in one night. But that's due more to irregular hormonal activity than to the book.
Also be aware the 'yuck factor' is significant. It's a true story, and Kim survived, and the scenes weren't drawn out in gory detail - but, yeah, I wish I'd been warned.