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Jill Owens: IMG David Mitchell: The Powells.com Interview



David MitchellDavid Mitchell's newest mind-bending, time-skipping novel may be his most accomplished work yet. Written in six sections, one per decade, The Bone... Continue »
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    David Mitchell 9781400065677

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This title in other editions

Wild Life

by

Wild Life Cover

 

 

Excerpt

The death of Jules Verne was reported in the morning papers—a great

loss to France and to the world. When I read this news, I confess I was

briefly startled into tears—just had to sit down and cry. Generally I

am not much of a one for tears, and so my youngest son, named Jules for

that very man, came and climbed on me, pulling at my hair and whining

the way children will do, and dogs the same way, they'll climb on you

and lick your eyes because they want things to go on being

understandable, they don't want you to sit down suddenly in a kitchen

chair crying.

I won't tolerate having my hair pulled, which my children know very

well, so I stood up and tumbled my son right out of my lap.

"Don't grab on my hair," I said, and discovered, upon sitting down

again, that I was already finished with crying. There followed a

theatrical burst of sobbing from Jules where he lay on the floor at my

feet, but as quickly done with—a long wet sigh—when I pulled him onto

my knee. He settled his bony little spine against my bosom and began to

twist a forelock of his own hair around his pointy finger while I held

the newspaper out in front of us and read:

Death Relieves Jules Verne

Calmly Foresaw His End and Discussed It with His Family

He had suffered from cataracts and deafness and diabetes, this was

something I knew. And seventy-seven. Well, it shouldn't have been a

surprise; I don't suppose it was. But something about it was

unexpected, a jolt. Indeed, he leaves large work, long years of

glorious writing; and now is dead. The world is changing, he told us,

and in my strong opinion Verne predicted very nearly every one of the

major mechanical developments of this century; his ideas have obtained

a kind of technological immortality. The world is changing but people

go on dying in the usual ways, is somewhere near what I was thinking,

now that the prophet himself had arrived at the limits of personal

mortality.

"Bird of six weeks kills her self with gas," my son read solemnly. My

children all are smart as whips, which I have written in these pages

many times, but this last one an uncommon case: not yet five years old,

but for more than a year he has been copying his letters from books and

reading to me the captions of the daily newspaper.

I looked where he pointed. "Bride," I said. "Bride of six weeks."

"What's a bride?"

"A woman with a romantic inclination which has led her into reckless

behavior."

This answer might have seemed sensible to him if he hadn't taken up

from his older brothers a mistrust of anything I am likely to say about

women. And my children are parlor artists, every one of them: he

breathed out in a dramatical fashion and tipped his head backward

against my breast, staring upward with the expectation of a revised

reply.

"A woman newly married," I said.

"What's married?"

"Enslaved to a man," I told him truthfully. At four years of age he has

no appreciation of scrupulous truthfulness nor understanding of irony,

and withal has learned from his brothers to question anything I am

likely to say about men. "Ma!" he said, in the particular way of all my

children, exasperated and demanding.

I said into his turned-up face, "When a man and a woman decide to live

as husband and wife, that's marriage. Like Otto and Edith."

He considered the idea, studying upward with his eyes evidently fixed

on the little dark caves of my nose; then he said seriously, "Like

Jules and Charlotte."

Well, boys are prone to confuse the mother with the wife; in fact,

husbands are prone to this same thing. So I only said, "No, not like

you and me. We are mother and son."

I expected him to follow this line of questioning to its next natural

point—to ask me if I had a husband, and who was he, which is related

to, but not the same as, Do I have a father, and where is he? (heard

and answered many times); but his mind does not work like mine and

shortly he had circled round again to another issue. "Why'd the bride

kill herself with gas?"

With a child as young as Jules there is not much point in carrying

scrupulous truthfulness to the edge of the abyss. "I don't know," I

said. "It may just be she was very, very sad." Both of us considered

this poor sad bride for a moment. The world is changing but people go

on dying in the usual ways. Then I said, "Get up now, I have work. So

do you. I want you to find the dog and a scissors and cut the hair away

from his eyes, but not too short, and don't poke his face nor yours,

and put the scissors away after."

This was something he had attempted without instruction on two

occasions in the recent past, for which reason I had hidden the

scissors thoroughly and cautioned the dog against cooperation. But I

had lately been wondering if Permission would cut the desirability

right out of that particular adventure, and in any case Horace Stuband

would be rowing Melba up the slough by this time, and it might be, if

Jules went on searching out the scissors for a quarter of an hour,

Melba would be standing in my kitchen tying on her apron and I'd be

locked away in the shed when the matter came to a climax.

Jules popped out of my lap with a little shout and went off at a

gallop, calling for the dog.

"Ma!" Frank said from the very air aloft. "Lightning's hid her kitties

up here, Ma, there's a hidey-hole under the eave. Look!"

Someone has taught that cat to count, is my belief, for she has never

failed to notice when we have sneaked off with the weaklings and the

crooked-born of her kittens, and she has become more and more wily with

each successive litter, determined to raise them all, runts and mutants

all, in a behavior that to my mind must be proof of the basic tenets of

Darwin, or disproof; which, I cannot as yet decide. For more than a

week my children have been looking for Lightning's new litter in places

as unlikely as sugar bowls, desk drawers, and rooftops.

"Where?" I called to Frank, and went out in the mud of the yard to see

where he was pointing from his slippery toehold on the gable of the

kitchen porch. "Oh my Lord, Frank. Can you see them? How many are in

there?"

"She's in there with them. I ain't reaching in. It smells like puke and

she'll bite a hole in me and I'll bleed to death."

I school my children as to the rules of absolute construction,

agreement of the participle, and placement of copulative conjunctions,

but ignore the colloquial as a matter of principle. Ignore, as well,

certain subjects of interest to Frank, whose inclination is to direct

people's attention toward blood, purulence, and excrement. I said,

"Just look in there, Frank, for heaven's sake. Count them."

"I don't want to put my face up there! She'll tear my eyes out and I'll

be blind."

Parlor artists, every one of them—which is something their departed

father unjustly blamed on me. "Well, then, come down from the roof and

go look for Lewis; he's left the woodpile in a jumble. Let Lightning

keep her mutant, godforsaken children, only I won't be held responsible

for what comes to pass. It's inevitable, I suppose, that a Cat Monster

will someday take over the earth."

I shook the newspaper as interjection, but having given up for now any

hope of reading the dying words of Jules Verne, I returned the paper to

the parlor, to the teetery stack at the end of the davenport bed. If

I'm to follow what is happening in the world, and what's being said

about this writer or that book, and the details not only of the book

industry but of biology and archaeology, chemistry and medicine, the

latest debates over the conceptions of Schopenhauer and

Nietzsche, and arguments to do with socialism, feminism, evolution,

eugenics, insanity, disease, not to mention what it was exactly that

Jules Verne said to his family before he died, and if I'm to go on

living three thousand miles from the centers of science and politics

and publishing, it always will be necessary to rely on a barrowload of

subscriptions to publications of all sorts, and books through the

mails. It's a very lot of reading, and for four days of each and every

month there's no keeping up, as Melba never can be persuaded away from

making a monthly visit to her daughter, Florence, in Yacolt, leaving my

children and me to manage the household without her; and since the U.S.

Post Office continues to bring my mail to the dock at Skamokawa every

day with the flood tide, the stack of unread newspapers and periodicals

always will build up during my housekeeper's monthly absence, until by

the fourth and last day it slides off the arm of the davenport bed into

a loose mountain on the floor beside it: a direct result of Melba's

stubbornness and the continuing inability of my children to manage

their lives without subvention and stewardship.

As if in perfect demonstration of this truth, I discovered Jules in the

kitchen standing on his toes on a high stool so as to peer through the

deep dust along the top of the Wilson cabinet, while his brother stood

below, jiggling the stool legs beneath him.

"Oscar, quit that. Jules, climb down from there. You won't find the

scissors in this kitchen, Jules, I've looked myself and I know for a

fact they are not here. Look out in the potato cellar for them, that

would be my advice. And failing that, try along the garden fence;

someone may have left them lying on the grass there."

"I never did," Oscar said in a righteously aggrieved way.

"Did too," Jules told him automatically, and the two of them fell to

wrestling on the kitchen floor. Oscar, at barely seven, is small enough

to present Jules, who is big for his age, with a challenging but not

impossible opponent. They wrestle daily over important matters, such as

whose arrow came nearest killing a particular Indian or slavering wolf,

and trivial matters such as who wiped whose snot on whose trousers.

"I haven't said that Oscar left the scissors out by the garden fence; I

said you ought to go look there. In fact, both of you ought to head for

the garden straightaway and search the fence line thoroughly."

I stepped around their thrashing arms and legs and began to clear away

these last four days of table scrapings. My personal belief is that a

woman's worth doesn't lie in the cleanliness of her house; and at the

commencement of each of Melba's absences I always am determined, on

principle, to let the housekeeping pile up. It is Melba's belief,

though, that a woman who neglects her home is unnatural, an abnormity

more horrible than Frankenstein's monster, and on her return there is a

particular look she will give me as she surveys the disorder. I believe

it's dread of that look that sometimes moves me at the last moment

toward a cursory sweep of the carpet, a symbolic neatening of dirty

plates.

"Ma, I can't find Lewis." Frank was breathless, roseate. "I think he's

disappeared. There's tracks and blood. I think he was maybe captured by

Indians."

"I wouldn't be surprised. But if Lewis has disappeared, Frank, it'll

fall on you, as his twin, to neaten the woodpile."

"Ma!"

I school my children as to the rules of absolute construction,

agreement of the participle, and placement of copulative conjunctions,

but ignore the colloquial as a matter of principle. Ignore, as well,

certain subjects of interest to Frank, whose inclination is to direct

people's attention toward blood, purulence, and excrement. I said,

"Just look in there, Frank, for heaven's sake. Count them."

"I don't want to put my face up there! She'll tear my eyes out and I'll

be blind."

Parlor artists, every one of them—which is something their departed

father unjustly blamed on me. "Well, then, come down from the roof and

go look for Lewis; he's left the woodpile in a jumble. Let Lightning

keep her mutant, godforsaken children, only I won't be held responsible

for what comes to pass. It's inevitable, I suppose, that a Cat Monster

will someday take over the earth."

I shook the newspaper as interjection, but having given up for now any

hope of reading the dying words of Jules Verne, I returned the paper to

the parlor, to the teetery stack at the end of the davenport bed. If

I'm to follow what is happening in the world, and what's being said

about this writer or that book, and the details not only of the book

industry but of biology and archaeology, chemistry and medicine, the

latest debates over the conceptions of Schopenhauer and

Nietzsche, and arguments to do with socialism, feminism, evolution,

eugenics, insanity, disease, not to mention what it was exactly that

Jules Verne said to his family before he died, and if I'm to go on

living three thousand miles from the centers of science and politics

and publishing, it always will be necessary to rely on a barrowload of

subscriptions to publications of all sorts, and books through the

mails. It's a very lot of reading, and for four days of each and every

month there's no keeping up, as Melba never can be persuaded away from

making a monthly visit to her daughter, Florence, in Yacolt, leaving my

children and me to manage the household without her; and since the U.S.

Post Office continues to bring my mail to the dock at Skamokawa every

day with the flood tide, the stack of unread newspapers and periodicals

always will build up during my housekeeper's monthly absence, until by

the fourth and last day it slides off the arm of the davenport bed into

a loose mountain on the floor beside it: a direct result of Melba's

stubbornness and the continuing inability of my children to manage

their lives without subvention and stewardship.

As if in perfect demonstration of this truth, I discovered Jules in the

kitchen standing on his toes on a high stool so as to peer through the

deep dust along the top of the Wilson cabinet, while his brother stood

below, jiggling the stool legs beneath him.

"Oscar, quit that. Jules, climb down from there. You won't find the

scissors in this kitchen, Jules, I've looked myself and I know for a

fact they are not here. Look out in the potato cellar for them, that

would be my advice. And failing that, try along the garden fence;

someone may have left them lying on the grass there."

"I never did," Oscar said in a righteously aggrieved way.

"Did too," Jules told him automatically, and the two of them fell to

wrestling on the kitchen floor. Oscar, at barely seven, is small enough

to present Jules, who is big for his age, with a challenging but not

impossible opponent. They wrestle daily over important matters, such as

whose arrow came nearest killing a particular Indian or slavering wolf,

and trivial matters such as who wiped whose snot on whose trousers.

"I haven't said that Oscar left the scissors out by the garden fence; I

said you ought to go look there. In fact, both of you ought to head for

the garden straightaway and search the fence line thoroughly."

I stepped around their thrashing arms and legs and began to clear away

these last four days of table scrapings. My personal belief is that a

woman's worth doesn't lie in the cleanliness of her house; and at the

commencement of each of Melba's absences I always am determined, on

principle, to let the housekeeping pile up. It is Melba's belief,

though, that a woman who neglects her home is unnatural, an abnormity

more horrible than Frankenstein's monster, and on her return there is a

particular look she will give me as she surveys the disorder. I believe

it's dread of that look that sometimes moves me at the last moment

toward a cursory sweep of the carpet, a symbolic neatening of dirty

plates.

"Ma, I can't find Lewis." Frank was breathless, roseate. "I think he's

disappeared. There's tracks and blood. I think he was maybe captured by

Indians."

"I wouldn't be surprised. But if Lewis has disappeared, Frank, it'll

fall on you, as his twin, to neaten the woodpile."

"Ma!"

"Go and ask any Indians you see skulking about whether they have seen

your brother. Look in all the mine shafts and secret caves. Follow the

blood trail. I'm serious, Frank. I want you to find Lewis and I want

Lewis to put straight the woodpile."

"Ma! He won't do it, Ma! He's out in the woods digging a bear trap and

he says he won't come."

"Go tell Lewis I'm giving his clothes to the orphans in Panama and his

pocket-knife to Oscar. Tell Lewis, since he's got bear meat to eat, he

surely won't be needing a place set for him at the supper table. And

tell Lewis that Melba is in a fine temper; if she sees the woodpile

like that, she'll box his ears off and he'll bleed to death."

Frank's face brightened; he went off to deliver these warnings to

Lewis. Oscar went off to claim Lewis's pocket-knife. Jules went off to

look for scissors in the deep grass along the garden fence. I stood

briefly in an empty room.

Just as Samuel Butler is said to have stopped everywhere and anywhere

to write down his notes, it is my habit to snatch up every moment of

quiet and solitariness for myself, to sit right down in these

circumstances and turn out a few lines, a paragraph of deathless prose,

while none of my children are underfoot: I keep a little notebook in

the pocket of every apron and wrapper for just such momentary

occasions. But I expected Melba; and I am as liable to be governed by

my housekeeper as any woman. I went on scraping the plates bitterly and

carried the pail out to Buster, who has taken up the prudent doggy

habit of hiding under the floor of the toolshed whenever summoned by a

child below a certain age.

The shores of the Columbia River at this lower end are crowded with

small and flat islands divided from one another by the narrow

slackwater of the sloughs—that is to say, by the river's back alleys as

it finds its slow way round and among the islands. Price Island and

Tenasillahe are so low lying as to be barely suitable for fish-seining

sites, but this island (having no name, and therefore just the Island)

is a great wedge of rolling pastureland and arable fields, as well as

woodlots of black cottonwood and red alder, engirt by the Steamboat,

Alger, and Ellison Sloughs. I should be surprised if the highest

hillock on the Island stands ten feet above the flood tide of an

average spring freshet, for which reason this house and several of its

outbuildings perch upon high stone piers in the hope (usually vain) of

getting through our periodic out-of-the-ordinary tides with merely

draggled skirts.

When Buster scooted out for the pail of scraps, I peered into the great

muddy vacancy beneath the shed and called, "George," for my oldest sat

in the dim dampness there, with his back reclined to the rocks of a

corner pier and his head not visible to me unless I bothered to circle

around to another corner and lean in. He said, "What," in a flat and

sullen way as if it were a reply.

"What are you doing under there? Reading a book? Consulting the stars?"

George, having the advantage of years, has long since reached an

understanding of irony, but continues without any appreciation for it.

"Ma," he said, from the very mountaintop of Impatience, "will you leave

me be."

He has gotten to be fourteen with no encouragement from me. I believe

the perfect age for any son is a certain week in his eleventh year when

he balances briefly at the triangular intersection of self-sufficiency,

unconditional love, and eagerness to please. If Science is to be

believed, nothing in the universe actually ceases to exist, but I have

begun to wonder: Whatever happens to all that affection, those years of

motherly

attachment, when a son determines to discard them?

"I'll do exactly that," I told him, and I removed the empty pail from

under Buster's nose and carried it back to the house.

At this time of year the path between the kitchen and the shed is

always a perfect trench of mud, for which reason I had gone over there

barefooted and with my hem pulled up into my belt. I've read that the

Wahkiakum and Kathlamet Indians of this coast never wore a shoe, and

the sensibleness of that has stayed with me ever since. While I stood

at the kitchen door stroking the bottoms of my muddy feet along the rag

rug, I discovered Melba standing in the front hall taking stock of the

clutter. Horace Stuband had delivered her and silently rowed himself

home.

Her look went round the rooms while her hat came off and then her

gloves. "I see you've left all the work to pile up for me," she said in

her usual way, which is Aggrieved.

Melba has failed to age well and suffers from an unlovely overbite as

well as an unsympathetic nature, but I believe I understand why men

once found her attractive. She is a small woman, under five feet in her

shoes, generous of bosom, with a waist that suggests it once was narrow

as a boy's; it would be in a man's nature to consider a woman's figure

ahead of her character. But she has made unlucky choices: two husbands

have died young, and the third, Henry, is a terrible drunkard and a

womanizer. Unlucky, too, has been her experience of childbearing: a

miscarriage, then a stillborn son, then a daughter borne hard and born

early, and a surgeon's hysterical removal of her womb. Then, I suppose,

Melba's daughter married and left the house before Melba felt herself

quite finished with raising her up; this would account for the way in

which she goes on trying to direct Florence's life from afar, in daily

letters shored up by these monthly visitations.

There is an approach I have learned from the dog, who will always pass

by a warlike cat by pretending not to notice her. "Frank has found

Lightning," was what I briskly announced. "It seems she's been hiding

her kittens in the eave of the kitchen porch roof." Melba, catlike,

received my information with a certain narrowing of the eyes and a

throaty, wordless warning; but her coat then came briskly off and was

hung upon the hook, after which she brought down her apron and tied up

the strings. So if she was briefly distracted from my insufficiencies

as a housekeeper, my purpose was served. "Frank is searching for Lewis,

who may have been killed by Indians," I said. "Oscar is in the house

playing with knives. Jules is in the garden looking for scissors.

George is lying under the shed with the dog." I went about the business

of gathering up my newspapers and digests while I delivered this

household report to Melba; and while she was still standing in the

front hall gathering up her dander, I was carrying my armload out the

kitchen door and through the mud to the shed.

Every writer needs a time and place in which to work. When some or all

of my children were yet unborn, there had been space in this house for

me to claim as my own: an unused bedroom, a sunporch, the rib-roofed

third-floor attic. But it has been a terrible task to write books

underneath the same roof with five irrepressible boys; this house is

full as a tick and peaceless. When push came to shove, I was forced to

look to other buildings for a room of my own.

When her own children were young, it had been my mother's habit to lock

herself in the outhouse with her embroidery, and in certain seasons of

the year when the deer were likely to come down into the yard to browse

the tender lawn with our cow, Mother kept a rifle with her and

developed a deadly aim from two hundred yards. I never did consider

following my mother's example, for our two-holer stands like a bastion

upon its high stone foundation and is a favorite stronghold of my

continually warring sons; they have made a particular science of

scaling its ramparts, from which vantage they ambush their unsuspecting

brothers with missiles of various kinds, or fire on their enemies with

wooden guns. I briefly gave thought to the little barn the cow stands

in to get relief from the rain, but refused it on the grounds that it's

three-sided (open to weather from the south), frequently lies in flood,

and is home to certain of Lightning's misconceived offspring. When I

first looked to the shed, it was full up with stove wood and tools and

broken things waiting there for repair, but numbered its walls at four

and had a door that would shut and latch. I instructed the boys to

bring the stove wood outside, where it was a-rowed between the stone

footings under cover of the shed floor, and our broken things out to

the yard, to rust or rot or be made over by one boy or another into a

steam launch or a cannon; and then the tools and I were able to come to

an amicable division of space. When I had fitted a lock to the inside

of the door, the place became proof against my children. Horace

Stuband, when he saw what I was doing, took it on himself to reboard

the floor against mice and mud and reshake the roof against rain and

draught. I have forty acres for no good reason except Wes had a

childish notion of himself as a Gentleman Farmer; and with Wes gone, I

have leased the greater part of these acres to my neighbor for his

cows. Of course, Stuband long has conducted himself as no mere

neighbor, instead a prospective husband, which I don't encourage; but I

accept the tangible tokens of his courtship with a sensible and silent

gratitude.

The shed is windowless and dark, hot or cold with the weather, but if

cold, Melba will send one of the boys over every long while with a

heated brick for my feet to rest on, and if hot, a cake of ice. As for

the lack of outlook, I consider I am driven inward to fanciful

mountainscapes and lost continents, and no worse for it, though in

certain weathers I find I must take a breath when I go in the little

dark room, in the manner, I suppose, of a hard-rock miner going down in

the shaft; and sometimes, coming out, I am surprised by the light, by

the absolute green of Stuband's pastures, or a sky unexpectedly huge

and blowsy with cloud, or the receding purplish ridges of the Nehalem

Mountains. This, I imagine, must be the surprise felt by someone who

comes up from years in a dungeon; or by Mountain Mary, returning from

the black heart of a volcano where she has discovered blind pygmies

living in a secret civilization.

On the other hand, I rather like the rain striking the roof of the

shed, the unpatterned drumming, and on those days there is comfort in

lantern light, the little room become snug and golden. Inasmuch as rain

is what we commonly have for weather, I am able to get along.

I climbed up the ladder to the high doorsill and while I scraped my

soles free of mud I said to George or the dog, "Don't thump around down

there while I'm at work," and someone, George or the dog, made a sound

of grievance. I toppled my papers and periodicals onto the maple

secretary which once was my husband's, lit the lamp, locked the door,

and put the chair under me. The dying words of Jules Verne

notwithstanding, it's my habit when I can escape to this study to keep

my morning hours for reading, my afternoons for writing. Being as it

was already (though barely) afternoon, I dipped the pen in the ink pot

and drove the nib across the page with a pent-up fury. "The horrible

sight," I wrote, "so clouded her mind and bound up the winds of reason

that she nearly cried quits with Fate and gave up the battle of Life."

Melba always has complained of her son-in-law, Homer, that he torments

his daughter in a man's careless way by bringing down with him from the

log camps horrid tales of Wild Men of the Woods, and so forth. I don't

believe a child is spoiled by the telling of monster stories; I've told

them myself, in such a way as to make the boys jump. But Homer will

swear every story is true, and that he has been a witness of great

barefooted tracks in the mud, twenty inches from toe to heel, and night

screaming of a bestial sort which is not the roaring of bears or lions,

which he claims he would recognize. He brings to his family gruesome

accounts of monstrous hairy men stepping forth from the shrub-wood to

crush an empty oil barrel, or bend back the iron top of a donkey

engine, or brandish an uprooted tree, and long recountings of stories

other men have told him, of women captured from sylvan picnics and

toted miles across the mountains on the shoulders of stinking man-

beasts. (Such is the nature of men, I am sure in their own camps,

outside the earshot of wives and children, these timbermen tell one

another the lascivious details of the ways in which these creatures

force their sexual attentions on captive women.)

Melba, I'm sure, wishes that her son-in-law would bring home to his

wife and daughter gentler tales of the sort she told her own young

child: St. Augustine's fables of men whose ears are large enough to

sleep in, and fanciful tales of griffins and centaurs. The Wild Man of

the Woods strikes her as altogether too near to the real, and

consequently dreadful. It is a discredited feeling in civilized

nations, but I believe we are all still afraid of the dark, and here in

this land of dark forests the very air is imbued with such stories;

indeed, the loggers had the tales first from the Indians. The realness

of them is another matter. As the woods are daylighted, and wilderness

gives way to modern advances in education and technology, I expect to

see the end of the Wild Man, exactly as faeries and gnomes disappeared

with the encroaching of the cities in Europe.

I also frankly wonder why Homer's stories remind me of certain of the

white man's fearful fictions of other races. It seems to me men always

have endowed the Indian, the Negro, the Hottentot with savagery and a

strong reek, with apelike looks and movements, and with a taste for

white women, and my own belief is that it's not a matter of other races

but a matter of fear. There is a bestial side to human nature, basic

and primitive impulses in the bodies of men which clamor for

satisfaction, and it must be a Christian comfort to ascribe such things

not to oneself or one's tribe but to hairy giants and savages. It may

be the Wild Man of the Woods is but a ghost of the wild man within.

I am forgiving of poor, dull Homer, though, inasmuch as I'm always on

the lookout for the seeds of my novels and have begun to make these

wild-man tales over, turn them quite on their backs and fill the shells

with my own turtle stew: the brave Helena Reed, Girl Adventurer, has

come face-to-face with a secret race of hairy mountain giants, and in

particular with a single example, the great and fearful Tatoosh of the

See-Ah-Tiks (whose civilization, of course, will prove more enlightened

than our own).

Today I wrote straight through—brought the dear girl to the very gates

of their great secret cavern—2,000 words in rather more than five and a

half hours. Of course, by then it was long since dark. If it suits

Melba, she will sometimes send one of my sons down with a sandwich at

midday, but she never will bring my supper to the shed; she's

stubbornly of the opinion I should quit my work as the night falls,

whether I've got to a stopping place or not. So when I went up the path

to the house, I discovered Stuband sitting with my children at the

supper table. Melba is determined that he should have a wife, and I'm

determined that it never will be me, but standing on the porch looking

through the kitchen window to the sight of my sons happily plying their

forks, and sweet, sad Horace Stuband sitting with them, neatly tipping

a glass of milk to his mustache, I admit I was pierced with loneliness.

There is something about a lighted room when you are standing outside

it in the cold night.

His hair has gone gray early, his whiskers gray, and his lean, pensive

face just short of pleasing to the eye. He is indulgent of my children

and kind with his cows, a man largely self-educated, and I believe he's

a bit in awe of me; in fact he seldom looks at me when he speaks, which

I suppose is due to abject fear; all of which may very well be good

qualities in a husband. And any woman might wish to console him for a

sad life: years ago, his baby son drowned in the bath and his wife

afterward fell into a long melancholia from which no one, least of all

Stuband, could deliver her. When a second child died on the day of its

birth, the poor woman began a habit of walking the fields and pastures

all night and falling to sleep outdoors in the daylight, very often

lying on the graves of her babies. One day she lay down in Hume

Sandersen's hay field, asleep or not, and the blades of Sandersen's new

reaping and binding machine passed over her. It always has struck me

that the woman was careful not to lay herself down in her own husband's

hay field; and that Sandersen is well known as a man of cold feeling.

People say he cleaned out his machine and went back to work the same

day.

But it's marriage I mean to avoid, not poor Stuband.

While I wiped my feet at the kitchen door I said, "Hello, boys, it's

gotten cold as hell," which was true, the mud on the path having gone

hard and glazed. Melba, standing at the stove with a pancake lifter

held up like a scepter, clicked her teeth in irritation. She objects to

my cursing, on the grounds that women should defend the purity of

children's minds. It's my argument that a child's happiness and well-

being decreases in direct proportion to the degree of his civilization.

"Snow, Ma?" This from Oscar and Jules both at once, raising their faces

to me hopefully.

We are always more likely to get rain in this quarter of the world than

snow, and I have seen winters pass here with no more than a brief

flurry in January, but Stuband, who is as childish in that way as any

of my sons, gave back the boys' eagerness. "I've seen it snow this late

in the year," he said. "Look here, boys, I've seen it snow in May. In

ninety-two, we were skating on the sloughs and driving wagons out on

the bosom of the river, it was that froze."

I placed myself on the bit of bench between the twins and lifted a

finger of mashed potatoes from Lewis's plate. "I believe you've missed

the question, Stuband," I said. "The boys want to know if there's snow

in this particular bit of cold weather, and since the sky has now gone

clear as a windowpane, I should think the likeliest answer is No."

Stuband is used to my glibness, I suppose, or might have pitched me a

crestfallen look. It was Melba, deliberately serving the boys' coconut

hermits ahead of my cold supper, who rattled the plate warningly with

the edge of her spatula.

I said to the boys, "In any case, if you're yearning for snow, you

should yearn for it on a day of the week when it will do you some

good."

"What's 'yearn'?" Jules whispered to Stuband, and Stuband, who is an

amateur reader and has taught himself the rudiments of vocabulary,

said, "It's to pray after something." George corrected him mildly. "Ma

doesn't pray. She's a Freethinker." Stuband then said, "It's to set

your heart for it," and got to the real point: "School's called off if

it snows."

This brought a light into the faces of the two youngest, quite as if

the news pertained to the moment, though an entire Sunday divides them

from their next possible encounter with the schoolhouse. In these

isolated precincts the school term is intermittent at best, commencing

when a teacher can be found and ceasing when one cannot, so my sons

have become more than a little spoiled from home schooling. When the

six of us are left to our own devices, I teach the children Thucydides

and Co. in the mornings, and then—having encouraged them to form museums,

to collect fossils and butterflies and to dissect worms—I let them run

wild in the woods and fields for the rest of the day while I scribble,

which is, more or less, the curriculum famously advocated by Seton and

his fellow Woodcrafters as being advantageous to the active minds and

bodies of the young.

Melba at last brought round my plate, and while I bolted down the cold

roast and mashed potatoes, the lima beans, the new bread and butter,

the boys brought up memorable snowfalls and then memorable teachers.

The Island School, having lost a string of teachers to the custody of

lonely bachelors, has lately taken to hiring girls whose principal

qualification is their seeming unsuitableness as brides—hard-featured

and repellent girls of vicious disposition and shiftless intelligence.

I expect my sons to become wise through teaching one another the canny

sufferance of inept teachers.

Stuband kept out of this discussion—he has a quiet center, which I

suppose is due to the difficulties of his life—but then he cleared his

throat and made an attempt to speak across the boys to me. "I'm glad to

see the sky clear off some," he said. "There's no good to plow while

this rain keeps up." He said this in an interested way, but one of his

shortcomings is a notable lack of conversational themes. The boys were

arguing about whether Miss Parrish kept a thumbscrew in her desk

drawer, and whether the little vial in the deep pocket of her duster

contained itching powder or arsenic, and I'm afraid my ear must have

been taking this in with somewhat more attention than poor Stuband's

weather talk. He went a few words further, seeming to speak to the fork

as he pushed it along the edge of his empty plate; and then reversing

his fork to travel the opposite way around the china, the poor man

lapsed silent.

In the following silence—well, not silence, as the older boys began to

give the younger an elaborate account of a girl whose fingernails had

turned black from a teacher's hammering them with a handy piece of

stove wood—I studied the shape of Stuband's big gray mustache, a

smoothly down-turned and pleated crescent very like the horns of an

Arctic musk ox, and when he became aware of this, he looked up. There

are times when I feel under his scrutiny: as if he has taken me into

his hands like a book and is studying the pages.

I was driven to say, "You know, Stuband, there are some very strange

things going on in the world today, and the world is flying forward

just as fast as it can." His look became startled, so that I was freed

to plow ahead. "Encke's comet," I said. "Blindness cured by a

miraculous drug. Moons circling Jupiter. A tunnel under the Hudson

River. We shall soon be piping natural gas from the sloughs into our

houses for lights and for cooking." I then began at some length on the

future of agriculture: in our lifetime, plants rendered microbe-proof;

farmers raising isinglass roofs over their fields, just as if they were

circus tents—but miles in expanse—and growing their crops under those

transparent covers without the suffering of bad weather.

I suppose I thought this would leave him fazed. He is always dim and

earnest with respect to my knowledge of the future and of the advances

of Science; it is principally for this reason I suffer Melba's practice

of asking him in for dinner. But when he had considered things—drawing

one horn of his mustache up into his mouth thoughtfully—he said, "I

wonder the wind wouldn't take hold of such a roof, Mrs. Drummond. A

circus tent won't stand much wind, I know that."

Finding that our interview had turned suddenly interesting again, Oscar

said, "I saw the roof fly off the Renegade Queen's Wild West Fair and

Bavarian Exposition!" On the instant, the other boys pushed in with

their own recollections of that memorable event, when we all had stood

in the streets of Astoria and watched the striped and flounced pavilion

of the Renegade Queen sail over the roofs of town and flatten quietly

on the backs of thirteen sheep, who were caught by surprise standing

dreamily in their own field. It was Frank who remembered: those ewes

had gone into a kind of nervous prostration from which they never had

recovered, and word had reached us afterward that the farmer had been

forced to slaughter every one of them to relieve them of their anxiety.

I kept to the point of my argument: "Not isinglass," I told Stuband,

"which I meant only as a similitude. We should expect to see the

invention of an artificial resin, clear as glass but plastic in its

consistency, like putty or wax, which will therefore hold up to the

wind and keep out every kind of scourge from cutworms to rabbits. The

world is in a terrific flux, Stuband, and astonishing things are in the

air all around us."

The boys by then had gone on from talk of slaughtered sheep to other

memorable and bloody animal encounters: a hog that had run amok in the

neighborhood with the butcher's knife stuck in its throat; a dog whose

eye was pierced with a porcupine quill; a drowned gopher found

inexplicably high in the crotch of a hemlock tree. Finally they had

come round to arguments about the length of time a headless chicken

might go on running around a yard spurting blood from its Melba at last

brought round my plate, and while I bolted down the cold roast and

mashed potatoes, the lima beans, the new bread and butter, the boys

brought up memorable snowfalls and then memorable teachers. The Island

School, having lost a string of teachers to the custody of lonely

bachelors, has lately taken to hiring girls whose principal

qualification is their seeming unsuitableness as brides—hard-featured

and repellent girls of vicious disposition and shiftless intelligence.

I expect my sons to become wise through teaching one another the canny

sufferance of inept teachers.

Stuband kept out of this discussion—he has a quiet center, which I

suppose is due to the difficulties of his life—but then he cleared his

throat and made an attempt to speak across the boys to me. "I'm glad to

see the sky clear off some," he said. "There's no good to plow while

this rain keeps up." He said this in an interested way, but one of his

shortcomings is a notable lack of conversational themes. The boys were

arguing about whether Miss Parrish kept a thumbscrew in her desk

drawer, and whether the little vial in the deep pocket of her duster

contained itching powder or arsenic, and I'm afraid my ear must have

been taking this in with somewhat more attention than poor Stuband's

weather talk. He went a few words further, seeming to speak to the fork

as he pushed it along the edge of his empty plate; and then reversing

his fork to travel the opposite way around the china, the poor man

lapsed silent.

In the following silence—well, not silence, as the older boys began to

give the younger an elaborate account of a girl whose fingernails had

turned black from a teacher's hammering them with a handy piece of

stove wood—I studied the shape of Stuband's big gray mustache, a

smoothly down-turned and pleated crescent very like the horns of an

Arctic musk ox, and when he became aware of this, he looked up. There

are times when I feel under his scrutiny: as if he has taken me into

his hands like a book and is studying the pages.

I was driven to say, "You know, Stuband, there are some very strange

things going on in the world today, and the world is flying forward

just as fast as it can." His look became startled, so that I was freed

to plow ahead. "Encke's comet," I said. "Blindness cured by a

miraculous drug. Moons circling Jupiter. A tunnel under the Hudson

River. We shall soon be piping natural gas from the sloughs into our

houses for lights and for cooking." I then began at some length on the

future of agriculture: in our lifetime, plants rendered microbe-proof;

farmers raising isinglass roofs over their fields, just as if they were

circus tents—but miles in expanse—and growing their crops under those

transparent covers without the suffering of bad weather.

I suppose I thought this would leave him fazed. He is always dim and

earnest with respect to my knowledge of the future and of the advances

of Science; it is principally for this reason I suffer Melba's practice

of asking him in for dinner. But when he had considered things—drawing

one horn of his mustache up into his mouth thoughtfully—he said, "I

wonder the wind wouldn't take hold of such a roof, Mrs. Drummond. A

circus tent won't stand much wind, I know that."

Finding that our interview had turned suddenly interesting again, Oscar

said, "I saw the roof fly off the Renegade Queen's Wild West Fair and

Bavarian Exposition!" On the instant, the other boys pushed in with

their own recollections of that memorable event, when we all had stood

in the streets of Astoria and watched the striped and flounced pavilion

of the Renegade Queen sail over the roofs of town and flatten quietly

on the backs of thirteen sheep, who were caught by surprise standing

dreamily in their own field. It was Frank who remembered: those ewes

had gone into a kind of nervous prostration from which they never had

recovered, and word had reached us afterward that the farmer had been

forced to slaughter every one of them to relieve them of their anxiety.

I kept to the point of my argument: "Not isinglass," I told Stuband,

"which I meant only as a similitude. We should expect to see the

invention of an artificial resin, clear as glass but plastic in its

consistency, like putty or wax, which will therefore hold up to the

wind and keep out every kind of scourge from cutworms to rabbits. The

world is in a terrific flux, Stuband, and astonishing things are in the

air all around us."

The boys by then had gone on from talk of slaughtered sheep to other

memorable and bloody animal encounters: a hog that had run amok in the

neighborhood with the butcher's knife stuck in its throat; a dog whose

eye was pierced with a porcupine quill; a drowned gopher found

inexplicably high in the crotch of a hemlock tree. Finally they had

come round to arguments about the length of time a headless chicken

might go on running around a yard spurting blood from its neck hole,

and plans were being made to conduct a scientific test of the question.

"I believe you must be right about that, Mrs. Drummond," Stuband said

to me, and he spread his mouth again so the edge of his teeth parted

the mustache in an abstracted smile. "I never have felt so in a flat

spin."

Copyright © 2000 by Molly Gloss. Reprinted by permission of Houghton

Mifflin Company.

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Jen Travers, January 1, 2010 (view all comments by Jen Travers)
My favorite book of the decade! Wild life was a fun adventure in the PNW forest under the shadow of the angry Loowit (Mt St. Helens).
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(4 of 8 readers found this comment helpful)
Rachel Thompson, May 28, 2007 (view all comments by Rachel Thompson)
Gloss's novel splendidly evokes the dark, haunted nature of the Northwest woods, where, even today, if you squint your eyes and close your ears, one can almost imagine a primeval world, before the advent of man into every corner of the world. This novel is an exploration of that advent, a story of the conflict of modernity and its technology, with the older, more natural world. "Wild Life" is a lament about the conflict, not necessarily a solution to it. However, it still expresses the wild poetry of the lost world, preserving it within its pages for future generations.
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(12 of 27 readers found this comment helpful)
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780618131570
Author:
Gloss, Molly
Publisher:
Mariner Books
Author:
Mol
Author:
ly Gloss
Location:
Boston
Subject:
General
Subject:
Historical
Subject:
Historical - General
Subject:
Frontier and pioneer life
Subject:
Historical fiction
Subject:
Wilderness survival
Subject:
Women pioneers
Subject:
Wild men
Subject:
Washington
Subject:
Washington (state)
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Cloth
Series Volume:
18445
Publication Date:
September 2001
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
272
Dimensions:
9.12x5.82x.74 in. .63 lbs.

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Related Subjects


Featured Titles » Literature
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
Fiction and Poetry » Science Fiction and Fantasy » A to Z
History and Social Science » Pacific Northwest » Literature Folklore and Memoirs

Wild Life Used Trade Paper
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$9.50 In Stock
Product details 272 pages Mariner Books - English 9780618131570 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

At the turn of the century, in the primeval forest of the Pacific Northwest, a fiery feminist becomes lost. Struggling to survive, night after terrifying night, she is finally rescued by... Bigfoot!? Huh? No, really — this incredible story works. Gloss — laying all the groundwork with such a willful, proud, and imaginative protagonist — makes sure that by the time we have to suspend our disbelief, we are ready for all the hearty metaphors this larger-than-life tale evokes. This book is a great gift for all the wild, woodsy women on your list. For outstanding PNW historical fiction without Yeti, I recommend Gloss's Jump Off Creek.

"Review" by , "As Molly Gloss's unconventional heroine affirms herself as a feminist, natural historian, mythologist, parent, and adventure-seeker, she reminds us that opportunity exists inside the self as well as outside it."
"Review" by , "Cigar-smoking, feminist writer of dime-store adventure novels for women meets Bigfoot in 1905....Never has there been a more authentic, persuasive, or moving evocation of this elusive legend: a masterpiece."
"Review" by , "Gloss twines just enough intellectual fiber around the sleek cord of a great adventure story to offer up a truly satisfying read....While Gloss generates heat and humor from the friction between early 20th-century and early 21st-century attitudes, her prose is most satisfying when she describes Charlotte's housekeeper ironing or Charlotte's patient suitor batting a homemade baseball. Deep into the book, Charlotte describes the 'lowbrow scientific romances' she fancies: '[M]y preference is for the writer whose language is gorgeous, whose characters are real as life, and whose stories take my poor little assumptions and give them back to me transformed.' Gloss couldn't have written a better description of her own novel: the writing is gorgeous, the characters real and vivid, and the story transforming."
"Review" by , "Written in journal format with occasional sidebars and epigraphs, this novel both entertains and engages the reader. Without moralizing, Gloss explores the deeper meaning of what it really is to be human."
"Synopsis" by , Award-winning author Gloss delivers a blend of cerebral satisfactions and page-turning adventure. Set among logging camps in the Northwest frontier in the early 1900s, she charts the life--both real and imagined--of the cigar-smoking, trouser-wearing Charlotte Bridger Drummond, who supports her boys by writing popular women's adventure stories.
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