MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Lauren Groff's novels and short stories deal with big topics like marriage, feminism and God. Critics and general readers love it, one reason each of her last three books was nominated for the National Book Award. Her new novel, "The Vaster Wilds," is a tight and tense story about a girl on the run set in 1610 Jamestown. She spoke with NPR's Andrew Limbong about what drew her to that period of American history.
ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: We met at a library at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The semester wasn't quite in full swing yet, but there was enough activity on campus that people stopped Groff to say hi, take a selfie. She signed a couple of books. But we were here on a mission to ogle an old book, "A Narrative Of The Captivity And Restoration Of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson."
As I understand it, it was, like, low-key propaganda.
LAUREN GROFF: It was high-key propaganda (laughter).
LIMBONG: It was high-key propaganda, OK.
Mary Rowlandson was a colonist who was kidnapped for ransom by Indigenous people and released. This book was her firsthand account of the experience. First published in 1682, it was super popular at the time. And it became a staple of the genre known as captivity narratives.
GROFF: These are not subtle texts whatsoever. I mean, they are meant to basically justify genocide and sort of the European expansion across North America. At the same time, it is true, especially in this one, Mrs. Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative, there are moments of actual humanity that are sort of boiling up through the story that is being told.
LIMBONG: These stories were the starting point for Groff's new novel, "The Vaster Wilds." It takes place in Jamestown, 1610, during a period historians call the starving time. The Powhatan people have the colony under siege, and colonists are hungry and sick, dying or dead.
Can I have you read a little bit?
GROFF: Oh, sure.
LIMBONG: Groff's protagonist, a girl with many names, was adopted from an English poorhouse and taken to the colony by a well-off family. At the start of the book, she's run away, and she's scared. But she's starting to question all the stories she's been told about this new world and its murderous inhabitants.
GROFF: (Reading) And likewise, while the men of the fort whispered and spoke these stories of fear, there was a part of the girl that resisted, that sang in low counterpoint, reminding her of the bridge over the river in the city of her birth and the way the enemies of the late queen had had their heads stuck aloft on pikes, their beards flapping in a hard wind and their mouths open in death so it seemed that they were silently screaming. And all the while beneath this vaunting of death, the carts heavy with their vegetables, their turnips and their cabbages, rolled serenely on. And the farmers thought of the beer and bread awaiting them and took no notice of these horrid tokens of death. For, verily, godlessness and murder, the girl knew, were certainly not limited to the people of this new country.
What I was at least attempting to do in this book was trying to show the mindset of a person who comes to the new world sort of having been raised in Christianity - right? - in the Protestantism of England, London, at that time, really believes narratives that have been told to her about her own worth, about the worth of the people around her. And then through the famine in the starving time in Jamestown, she starts to lose some of those narratives. And then through the really rugged and actually kind of somewhat also ecstatic motion of her body through the landscape, she starts to see even more past the scrim of the narratives that have been received in her.
LIMBONG: The stories we tell ourselves, what women are told about their worth, the stuff about bodily ecstasy in the face of God, it's similar territory to Groff's the last book, "Matrix," about a medieval nunnery. Groff was actually in the middle of writing "The Vaster Wilds" when the idea for a "Matrix" came to her, so she knocked that out first before coming back to "Vaster Wilds." She says the two books are part of an even larger project.
GROFF: I have this idea to make a triptych - so not trilogy, but a triptych - where I'm sort of seeing, from the outside, about a thousand years of how we got to where we are now. So "Matrix" is 12th century - right? - Catholic Church. And then "Vaster Wilds" is 1610, obviously very Protestant. And the third one, which is killing me, actually - I'm dying, like, it's murdering me in my sleep at night - is set now. And so what I really want to do is talk about ideas of God - right? - and the changeable ideas of God and how those ideas have sent us careening through the Anthropocene to the cusp of absolute catastrophic climate times at the moment, which is where we are right now.
LIMBONG: Groff's been thinking about the end of the world a lot lately. She tells me she's a secret survivalist these days. No guns, but she stocked up on food and other supplies should her family need it. And "Vaster Wilds" calls to mind the famous stories of men surviving alone in the wild. You know, think, like, Ernest Hemingway or Cormac McCarthy or even Gary Paulsen. But while the Western canon is littered with narratives of men as singular heroes, Groff found that historical fiction can help untether us from saviors.
GROFF: It can democratize history in a way. It doesn't have to be Napoleon standing on the top of a mountain, right? It can be the masses of people swarming to create that historical moment that could be the interesting thing, not this single hero, which I find a very corrosive and almost evil narrative that we have bought into. And we keep perpetuating the single hero. And I think that that has brought us immense grief culturally.
LIMBONG: Yeah, because, like, everyone has to deal with the world ending.
GROFF: I mean, right? And not everyone is the great hero, right?
LIMBONG: Yeah, sometimes you just die.
GROFF: Sometimes you just die.
GROFF: Elon Musk is not going to save us.
GROFF: Technology is not going to save us. The only thing that's going to save us is all of us working together, that's it. We cannot rely on one person. If we think we're going to rely on one person, we are going to die.
LIMBONG: If that sounds heavy and harsh, well, the natural world of "The Vaster Wilds" is heavy and harsh. There's all these scenes of the girl hungrily and miserably facing nature, starting fires and hunting food in the cold and wet of winter, because what else is she supposed to do but survive?
Andrew Limbong, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLEM LEEK'S "BURLESON, TX")
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