The Word for Woman Is Wilderness by Abi Andrews
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Full disclaimer - I asked the publisher (Two Dollar Radio) for an advanced copy of this book because it fit in so perfectly with my Canada-Alaska reading goals for 2018. It doesn't come out until March 2019 in the states but has been out in the UK in 2018.
This is a novel, but is written in such a creative non-fiction style that I had to keep reminding myself that the author's name is Abi and that this is a fictional account. There are charts, maps, packing lists, and photos that all lend an incredible realism to the narrative. The character of Erin is also a filmmaker so at times there are transcripts of interviews or soliloquies that add another layer to the story.
At the core is a philosophical novel, exploring the idea of wilderness through the experience of a young woman venturing from England to Iceland, Greenland, and finally ending up in Alaska not far from where Chris McCandless ventured out. (In fact, the book seemed to be so directly in response to Into the Wild that I stopped and read it before continuing.) The author and/or the narrator want to understand why the wilderness and its exploration seems to be something held to be masculine, and to prove it doesn't have to be. She confronts the ideas espoused by Jack London, Jack Kerouac, Thoreau, Ted Kaczynski (this one was a difficult surprise but makes a lot of sense in the end), etc. In some ways it claims wildness as unique to women, and there are some delicious statements about this near the end that I can't quote here since I have an uncorrected proof.
I was surprised that the author didn't include any female adventurers. It is true that many explorers are male, but not all. What about Margaret Murie, the fearless mother of the Alaskan frontier? Or women who are most at home in the wild, from Kira Salak to Annie Dillard to even Mary Oliver? It felt at times that these women and their writings might be a stronger defense to the idea of women being the wilderness than a 19 year old, but that might be my "old age" talking (I am 40.)
Still, I can tell from the author's acknowledgements (I always read them, don't you), and the way she titled chapters after items from Ursula K. Le Guin and female scientists, that she has these voices in her head, but narrowed down to the handful she did on purpose.
This was a great read right after I had read Travels in Alaska by John Muir, Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth, and Into the Wild by Chris McCandless, because the solitary male (who isn't in fact by himself) "discovering" the wild is all sorts of problematic in any century, and it was an antidote to read this book afterwards. It is immersive, thought-provoking, and a unique reading experience to be sure.
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