The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff

When I got to the end of the book, thought I had missed something. Described on the front as an adventure and a mystery, I feel this might be misleading as there is very little plot and a lot of journey.

A servant, unnamed by the narrator, escapes Jamestown in America where everyone is dying. Brought over on a ship by a family to start a new life, it comes as a shock to recognise that everyone is running or hiding from something they have done or are and that it is hardly civilisation.

It is gradually revealed through blood on her hands, that the girl has killed and so is on the run for she knows that they will send someone ‘bad’ after her to show the rest of the colony that they can not steal and get away with it. She runs and runs into the vast wilds and woods and as she runs she is chased by memories of her life, her treatment by men, the wickedness of the man her mistress married, the death of the child, Bess, she looked after, Native Americans and wolves and bears. She is chased by fairy tales and stories and the unknown.

We get every detail about the food she finds and the effect it has on her guts, where and on what she sleeps, the pain she is in as fever spreads throughout her body. For someone who seems to be noticing her body and some of her environment, she is also strangely un-noticing. She is not heading North, as she hoped, but West – the first of many to do so, she doesn’t notice the nuts under the trees that would sustain her, she doesn’t realise that the forests have been burned by Native Americans in order to access food more easily. She is laughed at by Native American children as she is swept by them in a boat that is soon to sink and it is easy to see that she represents the settlers moving onto a land they don’t know and observe closely enough and move through destroying everything in their path. When asked by the voice in her head if she knew the ‘scale of the place’, she replies

No, but surely it must be smaller than my own far greater country across the waters, where each field is so thick with legend and myth and ancient battles that one step is not merely in space, unlike this new world, but also through layers of time. Here there is nothing, only land, all the earth and mountains and trees remain innocent of story. This place is itself a parchment yet to be written upon.


At this point in the book I was begging Groff to allow a First Nation family to find the girl and nurse her back to health (I was thinking of the Last of the Mohicans here) but that isn’t what Groff has in store for this girl. She goes on and on and so does the reader, if they have the endurance. At last she finds a place to stop, she is too ill go on any further, and builds a stone cabin to live in until she can no longer.

And at the end, this God that she has followed and listened to the whole time, is lost.

. . . for the blight of the english will come to this remoteness as well. It will spread into this land and infect this land and devour the people who were here first: it will slaughter them, diminsh them. The hunger inside the god of my people can only be sated by domination. They will dominate until there is nothing left.


The writing to describe the vast wilderness is poetic for there are a lot of trees and streams and snow at the start of the escape.

Glory pulsed in her gut: she, a nobody, a nothing, going farther than any man of europe had yet gone in this place so new to their eyes.


I can see that this might end up as a bit of a marmite book. In one sense it is a tour-de-force of the vastness and the wilderness out there and in the plot sense it is a complete let down. I am not sure which side of the fence I come down on and so will sit firmly on it.

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