'The Vaster Wilds' review: Lauren Groff's survivalist novel tests your endurance An impoverished servant girl escapes the fledgling Jamestown colony during the winter of 1609–1610 in a historical saga that takes its inspiration from Robinson Crusoe.


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Lauren Groff's survivalist novel 'The Vaster Wilds' will test your endurance, too

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This is FRESH AIR. In her new novel called "The Vaster Wilds," Lauren Groff, who's been a finalist for the National Book Award three times, tells a harrowing story of an escape from Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the New World. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: "Robinson Crusoe," generally considered to be the first novel in English, is also the granddaddy of survivor sagas. Crusoe, the castaway, spends decades on his proverbial desert island, crafting what actually turns out to be a very pleasant existence. His days are spent catching turtles and goats, making clothes, furniture and a canoe, even journaling. Lauren Groff has said that "Robinson Crusoe" is one of the inspirations for her new historical novel, "The Vaster Wilds." But her heroine's extreme adventure in the forest primeval of precolonial America makes Crusoe's stint on his island seem like an all-inclusive vacation package at Club Med.

"The Vaster Wilds" is set in the fledgling Jamestown colony around the winter of 1609 to 1610, a period known to historians as the starving time because over 80% of the colonists died of disease and famine. Groff's main character doesn't have a name. She was abandoned at birth in England, and then at age 4, she was removed from the poorhouse to work as a servant for a prosperous family. She's mostly called girl, wench or worse. And she was simply taken along like baggage when the patriarch of the family she works for is lured by visions of the wealth of the new world.

The novel opens on what's possibly the girl's first autonomous act. She escapes from the primitive fort at Jamestown. We're told that in the tall black wall of the palisade, through a slit too seeming thin for human passage, the girl climbed into the great and terrible wilderness. Why she runs away is a question that hovers in the chill air until the very end of this novel, which turns out to be a test of endurance for the girl and for us readers as well.

Equipped with a stolen hatchet, flint, warm cape and boots, courtesy of a boy who's just died from smallpox, the girl runs. The girl runs and runs because, as she tells herself, if I stop, I will die. She runs through needles of ice that turn into down-sifting snow, which she's thankful for because it covers her footprints. One of the very early satisfying twists in this story occurs when the sadistic soldier who's dispatched to capture the girl is quickly engulfed by the violence lurking in the wilderness. Thanks to Groff's omniscient narrator, we readers know the soldier is a goner, but the girl herself never catches on that she's running from nobody. As the girl runs, sheltering in exhaustion in caves and hollowed-out tree trunks, she survives close brushes with wild beasts and a half-man, half-beast, crazed Jesuit priest.

Here's a tiny sampling of Groff's extended description of what 40 years alone in the wilderness have done to this priest. (Reading) Human eyes were embedded within a matted mass of hair from the scalp, which had grown altogether into the hair, from the beard and the back and the shoulders and chest so that he wore a filthy, seedy, twiggy tunic, out of which lower arms and legs did poke. The meat he ate was raw. All this time, he was full of worms.

I always like to check out Groff's latest novels because she's such an evocative writer who always sets herself the challenge of doing something different. The domestic fiction of "Fates And Furies" was followed by the medieval historical fiction of the "Matrix," which in turn is now followed by the eerie survival story of "The Vaster Wilds." What would it be like to run away without knowing if there were any place to run to? That's the question that seems to impel "The Vaster Wilds." With vivid exactitude, Groff dramatizes the answer. The ordeal would be terrifying, raw, brutal, and it must be acknowledged, kind of exhausting in its repetitiveness. Groff tries to offset the monotony of this marathon run of a plot by including flashbacks to the girl's hard life in England and less successfully by having the girl formulate clumsy cultural commentary about the machinery of domination that was the English settlement of the New World. The deliverance offered by "The Vaster Wilds" may be more realistic than Robinson Crusoe's fortunate flagging down of a passing ship. But perhaps it's not too sentimental to wish that all that running could have ended in something more.

MOSLEY: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Vaster Wilds" by Lauren Groff. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you've missed, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of interviews, like our interview with comedian Aparna Nancherla, who has a new memoir about having imposter syndrome, or with Scott Simon, whose new audio book, "Swing Time For Hitler," is about a Nazi swing band that spread repellent ideas through jazz music. Listen to FRESH AIR wherever you get your podcasts. And to keep up with what's on the show and to get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.

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