Wild Life: A Novel

by Molly Gloss

Hardcover, 2000

Call number




Simon & Schuster (2000), 256 pages


In 1905, a cigar-smoking, feminist writer of popular adventure novels for women encounters Bigfoot in Molly Gloss's best loved novel--­­"never has there been a more authentic, persuasive, or moving evocation of this elusive legend: a masterpiece" (Kirkus Reviews, starred review). Set among lava sinkholes and logging camps at the fringe of the Northwest frontier in the early 1900s, Wild Life is the story--both real and imagined--of the free-thinking, cigar-smoking, trouser-wearing Charlotte Bridger Drummond, who pens dime-store women's adventure stories. One day, when a little girl gets lost in the woods, Charlotte anxiously joins the search. When she becomes lost in the dark and tangled woods, she finds herself face to face with a mysterious band of mountain giants...or more commonly known as Sasquatch. With great assurance and skill, Molly Gloss blends "heady cerebral satisfactions, gorgeous prose, and page-turning adventure" (Karen Joy Fowler, bestselling author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves), and puts a new spin on a classic piece of American folklore.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member eilonwy_anne
This was a very strange book, but very good. Part of what it does, quite deliberately I believe, is change course several times. I knew about the fantastic element in the book before buying it -- that, along with having read some of Molly's other gorgeous writing, pretty much sold it to me -- but I
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think the publisher would have served the book better by giving it a cover that didn't code it so unambiguously as Western historical fiction. Its ambiguities are part of its loveliness, and should be celebrated instead of simplified away.

The story is told largely in diary entries, though with interpolated articles and pieces of the Charlotte's published fiction. In the early sections, before the plot ramps up, it's her voice that carries us along -- plucky and stubborn but also aware of her own failings and occasional ridiculousness. To a writer, female or not, her notes on and soul-searching about finding time for writing and negotiating your own literary ambitions will resonate.

Once Charlotte leaves on her quest -- to help find a lost child, which isn't a spoiler since it's mentioned on the first page's 'cover letter' -- some of the themes, like modernity and mechanization, start to come to the forefront. The landscape and equipment of 1900s logging in the Northwest United States is very interesting, and unfamiliar to most of us. Charlotte's self-conscious modernity and discomfort with primordial wildness becomes easy to understand when we see the vast taming action being carried out against the land.

As for the latter half, I'm unwilling to affect others' reading of it by going into much detail, but I will say that it follows a structure -- the deliberately paced, background-building plot that culminates in a transformative, lyrical journey -- that I enjoyed in Le Guin's Left Hand of Darkness, and it's equally hard-hitting and effective here. The climactic and concluding sections of the book kept me pressed to the page, wiping away tears. I felt my skin prickle with the sense of visiting, or being visited by, another world lost in and for our own.
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LibraryThing member SugarCreekRanch
I really wanted to like this one. It's set in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1900's. A very independent woman support her family by writing dimestore adventure novels. She gets drawn into her own adventure when she joins the search for a missing child in the woods near Mt St Helens. Sasquatch
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are involved. Exquisite writing. But.. the narrative is a mix of diary entries and straight narrative. And this is interspersed with (non-chronological) excerpts from the protagonist's novels and personal essays, and a few newspaper articles. It's interesting -- did the writing influence life, or vice-versa, or both? But it got hard to follow, especially with the chronology jumping around, and I eventually got lazy and just skimmed any parts that weren't part of the main plot.
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LibraryThing member SheilaDeeth
Set around the turn of the (last) century, Wild Life by Molly Gloss presents the “found manuscript” of a novel or diary, and leaves the reader to decide what’s true and what’s not. If the story’s to be believed, there are more things hiding in the forests and mountains of the Pacific
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Northwest than modern man has seen (though loggers saw a lot). If not, there’s a perfect example of an “unreliable narrator” telling this tale. But you’ll have to read it yourself to decide.

In the early 1900s, pulp fiction sold well enough, though women authors lacked the opportunities given to men. Narrator Charlotte Bridger Drummond supports her family by writing, struggles to balance her time, and never seems quite clear of who or what she is. Certainly she wants to be more, and when a child goes missing she jumps at the chance to share the experience of searching the trackless forest, a task that soon has her sleeping at the loggers’ camp and listening to tales of strange scary creatures who just might steal the helpless away in the night.

Cigar-smoking, bicycle-riding Ms Drummond is, of course, not helpless, and man might be scarier than beast. Ms Drummond observes, thinks, comments, and writes in her journal. Soon she’s amazingly real as readers are pulled into the dark and light, and the scents and sounds that surround her. Her past is shrouded in the mystery of a husband’s death. Her future is clouded by her children’s needs. But her present becomes a wonderful trek of bravery or fantasy, presented with newspaper cuttings, historical factoids made real, and a wealth of personal musings.

Does this novel blend history and fantasy? Is it a real-world tale where nature and monster combine? Or is it magical realism, believed but not entirely believable, born of the fictional author’s need to be more than the real world allows? Perhaps there are mysteries inside each of us, natural selves that are finer than myths would tell, and hidden strengths that are more than duty and love. Wild Life invites readers into the wild of nature and self, hides as much as it reveals, and offers a deeply enthralling, curious read.

Disclosure: A friend gave it to me and thought I might enjoy it. I did.
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LibraryThing member lquilter
I loved this historical novel about a woman raising her family alone in the west. The slipstream-iness is what takes it beyond a "feisty independent" heroine story, into deeper territory exploring responsibility and wildness.

If you liked the slipstream historical aspect try Sarah Canary by Karen
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Joy Fowler and God's Fires by Patricia Anthony (although the latter is rather darker).
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LibraryThing member lyzadanger
I was all grinning and ready to give this book five glowing, thrilled stars. The first 150 pages were the stuff of genius (my definition of genius, of course): a strong female character, a glimmering tongue-in-cheek narrative, Pacific Northwest scenery and lore, and a historical setting that was as
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real as it was charming. This is really a lovely book.

The characters are sharp and lovable. I'd find it really hard to dislike our wickedly shrewd and fearless protagonist, a (shockingly) single mother in early-20th-century rural Washington, along the Columbia River. Of course, she's kind a terrible mother (to five sons!), but that just somehow makes her even better.

The adventure begins when she--Charlotte--heads out into the wilderness and logging camps near present-day Battleground, Wash., to look for her housekeeper's missing granddaughter. That still stays wonderful, as she dons men's digs and gets all muddy and real.

Then things get crazy and fantastical. I can't decide that this melting into fantasy is brilliance or a letdown after such a romping first half. I think I still liked it, but it didn't have the resounding freshness of the reality segments of the novel. Charlotte's frame of mind in the end of the story is hard for me to identify with.

Overall, highly recommended, especially if you are interested in the Pacific Northwest, homestead-era history, logging history or, well, giant ape things.
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LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
Wild Life takes place in the wilds of Oregon/Washington state in the early 1900s. Charlotte Bridger Drummond is a feisty, independent, feminist, single mother of five (all boys) who supports her children by writing dime store novels. She has a bit of an ego and flies the feminist flag a little too
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frequently, but has a good heart. When her housekeeper's granddaughter goes missing in the logging hills of the Oregon/Washington border she bravely joins the search believing her strength and savvy will bring the child home. To her utter surprise Charlotte gets lost herself and must depend on a group of shy Big foot-like beasts for survival. While the overall premise of Wild Life is fascinating and the strength of Gloss's writing is intoxicating, the mishmash of storytelling misses its mark. Interspersed between Charlotte's tale (in the form of a diary) of her search for the missing child and her adventure with the wild ones is a third-party narrative about barely related characters, short literary quotes, science related newspaper and journal clippings, and substantial excerpts from CBD's current in-the-works novel. Much like I wanted to see the Ya-Ya scrapbook in The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells I think Wild Life would have benefitted from a tangible scrapbookish approach (think Nick Bantock).
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
I really wanted to like this book, because it had a number of elements that normally appeal to me: strong female protagonist, feminism, and an historic setting (in this case, the Pacific Northwest c1900). The main character, a widowed mother of four, sets off to help find a missing child and goes
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missing herself. Unfortunately, the events that followed seemed a bit far-fetched, and the account of her adventure was interspersed with other writings, making it difficult to make sense of the work as a whole.
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LibraryThing member Cheryl_in_CC_NV
original, fascinating, educational... I've never read anything like it before but I will remember the author's name and look for more by her!
LibraryThing member juniperSun
Finally finished this book...I kept waiting for our intrepid heroine to actually have the wilderness adventure mentioned on the jacket. Charlotte is a modern woman, an author, struggling to escape the strictures of motherhood imposed on her, but she comes across as very self-centered. When her
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housekeeper's grandchild is missing from a Washington lumber camp, Charlotte seizes the opportunity for an adventure by going to join the search. Written as an amalgam of diary entries and excerpts from supposed writings of our heroine, introduced by quotes from actual writings in the late 1800's/early 1900's.
Now I can see why the blurbs mention "historical accuracy" and "literate". A number of the entries discuss the role of literature, women's literature, and "light" novels, we have primary sources for the attitudes and experiences depicted, and the style of writing closely mimics the dime-novels of that era. However, I am not enamored of that writing style and, not being an author or English major, wasn't looking to read old discussions of what makes good literature. Perhaps it will appeal to other LT readers.
Some typical quotes about literature:
"...since women are rarey mentioned in articles and other works of literary criticism that present a history of literature, these omissions are compensated for by including separate chapters dedicated to 'women who write' and preparing collections of stories and essays just for women (that in general are not read by men). One can presume the literary standards in such a 'one-eyed, blinking sort o' place' must suffer accordingly." (p.103)
"the one thing worth doing as a writer is to dwell upon things that arouse the imagination--upon swords and gabled cities and ancient forests, upon temples and palaces, giant apes in their revolt, and imprisoned princesses inn their unhappiness." (p.104)
I'll be donating my copy to my local library's sale as I can't think of any of my acquaintances I would want to inflict it on.
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LibraryThing member SChant
Tiptree winner . The story was OK, but what I really enjoyed was the sense of place - not just the wild forest but the muddly little logging camps, the sad burnt-out areas on the edges of the forst - everything was sharply focussed and I was totally drawn in to the environment.
LibraryThing member LyndaInOregon
Gloss hits a lot of notes in this bordering-on-fantasy tale set in the deep woods of Washington State in the early 1900s. Whether it’s a symphony or cacophony may depend largely on the reader’s perception.

When we first meet Charlotte Bridger Drummond, through the pages of her
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posthumously-discovered diary, she’s a single mom trying to corral five rambunctious sons, eking out a living as a writer of penny-dreadful novels – mostly formulaic romances full of spunky heroines, hidden civilizations, daring adventures, and nick-of-time rescues. She knows it’s largely tripe, but also knows that women writers of her era have a difficult time being taken seriously. When her housekeeper’s granddaughter goes missing from a logging camp, Charlotte is determined to join the search – partly because her housekeeper is an important part of her life, but partly (even though she never admits this to herself, even in the most secret pages of her diary) it’s an opportunity to show herself as the physical equal of the men in the party and perhaps to live the spunky heroine role and find adventure/inspiration for yet another novel.

The diary remnants are neither complete nor chronological, and are intermingled with quotations, news clippings of the day, descriptions of the logging towns and turn-of-the-century logging practices, excerpts from Drummond’s published works, fragments of ideas for future pieces, musings on the relationships between men and women, personal history, anecdotes about mystical forest creatures reported by Indians and early settlers for decades, keen observations of the landscape, character sketches, folk tales, observations on racism, and a dark, simmering undercurrent of sensuality which she admits may be coming from her own self-enforced celibacy.

The brutal reality of bushwhacking through virgin Pacific Northwest forest in the search challenges Drummond’s perceptions of her own capabilities – perhaps not a bad thing – but a series of mishaps (the least skillfully handled of any of the book’s events) leaves her separated from the search party without even the most rudimentary tools or equipment for survival, and here’s where the story takes a turn into fantasy.

Or does it?

Drummond’s sojourn in the wilderness, as reported in the journal she keeps throughout the event, becomes less and less tethered to the world we know. Is it a true story? A fever dream? The fantasy of a mind and body stressed beyond endurance? A series of scenes for a possible future novel? Readers will have to make their own decisions about this, just as they will have to imagine Drummond’s subsequent life.

Gloss has written both science fiction and historical westerns in the past, and bends the genres here into something that is not quite either one, flavored with her unique understanding of the region and a sturdy feminist viewpoint. The journey is not always comfortable, but true exploration seldom is.
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LibraryThing member smbass
I'm not sure what I think of it. Well written, but didn't catch me up in it.
LibraryThing member nyiper
I am still catching up with Molly Gloss's books. How does she write with such incredible detail about such an incredible experience ---a remarkable independent woman getting lost in the wild and being helped by creatures? Yes, of course Gloss has an amazing imagination and certainly this is based
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on a lot of history but she writes as if she IS this woman and it is very believable to sort of "live with her" through this incredible experience...both of her life before she got lost and then, the ending.
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Otherwise Award (Winner — 2000)




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