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A Reader's Guide

"Extraordinary . . . a majestic evocation of the Pacific Northwest, in which elements of feminism, tall tales, the nature of the creative process, and the bottomless magic of the American wilderness are expertly woven into one exquisite artifact, a glowing gift to the reader." — Carolyn See

Questions for Discussion

We hope the following questions will stimulate discussion for reading groups and provide a deeper understanding of Wild Life for every reader.

1. In what ways — in her behavior as a mother and her relationships with the townspeople, for example — does Charlotte Bridger Drummond defy convention? How are the conventions that she defies similar to or different from those faced by independent women today?

2. The very first of Charlotte’s diary entries that we read — dated three months after her deepwoods adventure, and out of chronological sequence — is, "To write, I have decided, is to be insane." How does this judgment affect our response to all that follows? In what ways, and in what contexts, do issues of sanity and insanity arise?

3. "I can amuse and digress with the best of them," Charlotte says of herself, "and have an imagination that gives way to no man." What sets her imagination apart from the imaginations of others, and how do its workings become known? If Charlotte prizes the imagination to the extent she claims, why does she insist upon finding rational explanations for everything? How might the combination of Charlotte’s "energetic imagination" and "a certain giddiness" and "relish for adventure" predispose her to her experiences in the forest?

4. With what details does Gloss provide a sense of the landscape, economy, and life of southwest Washington at the turn of the twentieth century?

5. How do the various quotations that Gloss intersperses throughout Charlotte’s account illuminate the major themes of the novel or enhance our understanding of the motivations and behavior of Charlotte and other characters?

6. One of the Samuel Butler quotations reads: "When anything in [my books] is rather strange and outré, it is probably drawn straight from nature as close as I could draw it; when it is plausible, there is probably no particular and especial foundation for it." How might this comment and Charlotte’s immediately following observation — "It is a mild paradox, I suppose, that plots taken from real life often are the harder to believe" — apply to Charlotte’s writings? How might they apply to Wild Life?

7. To what degree have Charlotte’s "necessary conditions for female emancipation" been realized? "I envision a day very soon," she wrote in 1889, "when women as a class shall be guaranteed happiness. We lack only the technology." How is this view reconciled with what Charlotte later writes of Melba: "She had little confidence and less interest in the idea of Progress, not having noticed much improvement in people’s happiness with the improvement of machinery"? How have technology and "the improvement of machinery" affected women’s lives over the past 110 years?

8. In a 1906 diary entry, Charlotte notes that, despite being "accustomed to thoroughly governing my own affairs and the affairs of my children" and "in those respects well content with my condition," she has never conquered loneliness. What kind of loneliness does she refer to, and what are its occasions? What is the "agony of solitariness" that Charlotte suffered after being "rescued," and how might it be related to this later loneliness?

9. How might we explain the "feeling of puniness and anxiety, which must be the human response to such supernatural forests" as the one Charlotte enters in search of Harriet? In what way are these "primeval forests" supernatural? How do Gloss’s descriptions of the great forests — and Charlotte’s observation, "Of course, that is the meaning of forests, that they are wild" — support present-day arguments for the preservation of wild places?

10. After several days lost in the deep woods, Charlotte begins to contemplate the possibility of her death and the question of life after death. To what extent are her thoughts in this regard commonplace, and to what extent exceptional? What does Charlotte learn about grief and dying and human attitudes toward grieving and the death of oneself and others?

11. In an August 1902 diary entry, Charlotte writes that "the extraordinary has an allure of its own that can transcend intellectual considerations." How might this observation apply to her own story? In what way does Charlotte’s story transcend intellectual considerations? What kind of considerations take precedence over the intellectual?

12. What does Charlotte learn from her observations of the forest beasts about love, family bonds, other states of being, and civilization itself? How do her experiences with and observations of the beasts alter her view of herself and the personal qualities she once held as primarily valuable?

13. As Charlotte joins her own "warble" of mourning to that of the Mountain Giants, she observes of this single instance of alteration, "By such small increments the old lines that set me apart, that defined me, are erased." By what increments and through what stages does Charlotte adapt her behavior and outlook to those of the Mountain Giants? What does she learn or acquire, and what does she lose or forget at each stage? Which is the more important, what she acquires or what she leaves behind?

14. Returning with Horace Stuband to the Island, Charlotte considers that "the conquest of the natural world has been the ruling passion of this modern society." What evidence of this "ruling passion" appears in the novel? How close has the country come to being "emptied of the last of its mysteries"? Why should we be concerned that "the connection between ourselves and the wild world [might be] irrevocably broken"?

15. What is the message conveyed by the final excerpt from "Tatoosh" about the Bearded Man? How do you interpret the statement that "the Bearded Man had cut the cord between himself and the world and now stood separate in his victory, like an embryo which has triumphed over its womb"? What are the implications of the novel’s final sentences — "In the Moon When Tight Buds Unfurl, Wolverine found a lost child belonging to the Bearded Man and brought this child to us. We have been keeping it safe"?

About the Author

Molly Gloss is the author of four novels and numerous short stories, yet she didn’t start writing seriously until she was thirty-five. Born and raised in Portland, Oregon, Gloss confesses that she has always liked to write but that she "grew up in a period when smart girls were encouraged to be teachers or nurses. Nobody ever told me I could be a writer." After the birth of her son and a rocky adjustment period that yielded what she called a "desperate journal," Gloss enrolled in a writing class taught by Ursula K. Le Guin at Portland State University — an experience she called "life-altering." Her first book, Outside the Gates, was a young, adult fantasy that grew out of a short story written for her son. Her second novel, The Jump-Off Creek, was the winner of the Oregon Book Award, and the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award for Fiction and a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. She then published The Dazzle of Day, a foray into science fiction, which was named a New York Times Notable Book and received the PEN Center U.S.A. West Award for Fiction. Gloss is also the recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award. Wild Life, her fourth novel, was recently awarded the James Tiptree Award for literary fantasy. Gloss teaches writing and literature of the American West at Portland State University and lives in Portland, Oregon.

A Conversation with Molly Gloss

Q) In what ways does Molly Gloss resemble Charlotte Bridger Drummond? For instance, do you share any of Charlotte’s wonderfully unconventional mannerisms, or her opinions concerning women, men, and the business between them? Do you share her delight in scandal?

A) I’m afraid I’m much more conservative and conformist than Charlotte. No cigars; no reveling in scandal. I would love to read condemned books, but I can’t find anybody who would be shocked by anything on my bookshelves. I do ride my bicycle while dressed as a man, but these days, if I really wanted people to turn and look, I’d have to ride it while wearing an ape costume. As for the man-woman business, I seem to be one of the few people who managed to make a long-term marriage work, so my views of men are quite a bit kinder than Charlotte’s. Many of the male characters in my novels, men like Tim Whiteaker and Blue Odell, in The Jump-Off Creek, and Horace Stuband, in Wild Life, have been in large part modeled on the men I know, who happen to be mostly gentle men. I do share Charlotte’s views on independence and loneliness, and the difficulties of combining a career as a mother with a career as a writer. And we have similar tastes in novels — that is, we’re always looking for a mythical/metaphorical/utopian/western/adventure novel that transcends its genre!

Q) Other than your own experiences and your own imagination, what were your sources for Charlotte and for Wild Life?

A) For Wild Life, my sources were the novels and the lives of women who wrote popular fiction around the turn of the twentieth century. I got into those novels and their authors when I was doing research for The Jump-Off Creek. I wanted Lydia Sanderson to be a reader, and I started looking through used books stores for the kinds of books she might have liked, novels with brave heroines in them, written around 1895. Writing was an acceptable occupation for women in the later part of the nineteenth century and into the 1920s, and they weren’t writing only domestic novels, but western romances and scientific romances as well. In those days, a high proportion of dime novels and pulp fiction was written by women. Pretty soon I had a collection of women’s old novels, and that was the beginning of my thinking about the story that would become Wild Life.

Mary Hallock Foote, especially, was a model for Charlotte. She wrote and illustrated a bunch of western romances while raising a family in one western boomtown after another. Her memoir, unpublished in her lifetime, is gorgeously written, full of intelligence and insight. She probably would have written more serious fiction if she’d had the right encouragement and less financial pressure. Mary Austin is another writer I admire, and I used her work as a model for Charlotte’s own later writing, a somewhat mystical style, very poetic, in which nature itself becomes almost a living character. And of course Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s radical (for her time) feminism was a model for my Charlotte’s views on male-female relations. And other women were in the back of my mind, too, all those women at the turn of the last century who managed to subvert or contradict popular prejudices about how a genteel woman should think and behave.

Q) What research did you undertake to create the amazingly detailed view of logging in turn-of-the-century Washington and Oregon? How have the economic and ecological importance and impact of logging in the Northwest changed or remained the same over the past hundred years?

A) Even while they were mightily engaged in cutting down the ancient forests, men were conscious that they were involved in a historic event. So there’s an enormous amount of documentation, including vast archives of photographs, of the early logging industry. I pored over them — lived inside those photographs, really — and read many of the accounts written during and after the glory days of logging by the loggers themselves and by Eastern writers who reported back to their Boston and New York magazines. And the regional histories of logging towns in Oregon and Washington are a treasure trove of detail about the loggers and the timber towns. Of course, logging is still an important economic force in the Pacific Northwest, but in my lifetime I’ve seen tremendous change. When I was a kid, there was still a lot of uncut old growth, many old forests that were still wild and mostly roadless; but now, when you fly over a national forest, you see a patchwork of clear-cuts and plantation plantings of various ages, and all of it crisscrossed with roads. We’ve lost a lot of wilderness since Charlotte’s day.

Q) Three months after her deepwoods adventure, Charlotte writes in the first of her diary entries that we read, out of chronological sequence: "To write, I have decided, is to be insane. . . . once you start to write, you are moonstruck, out of your senses. . . . And here is the interesting thing to me: when this happens, you often learn something, understand something, that can transcend the words on the paper." Is that what it’s like for you?

A) That is exactly how I feel when I’m writing, and how many other writers have told me they feel; and as far as that goes it’s also how readers feel, because with our best books readers are brought to that place inside the story and they become for a while the people in the novel, they lose themselves, and live body and mind in this other, imaginary world. It’s an experience that is both rare and distrusted in our culture. For centuries now, I guess, we’ve been carefully learning to separate our bodies (our hearts!) from our minds, and to distrust anything that comes into our consciousness on a tide of emotion. In the scientific tradition, if you want to understand something you have to stand back from it, observe and measure it, separate your heart from your mind and reason your way toward an understanding. Getting lost — losing yourself — in a book is an unreliable, inexact, not-reproducible way of knowing and learning about the world. But of course the only time people in this scientific age experience body-and-mind united and whole is when they live inside their imaginations, watching a movie, reading a novel or writing one — putting on someone else’s (imaginary!) life like a coat and wearing it for a while.

Q) You have said, "One of the questions I always seem to be holding in my hand is the question of the human response to wilderness." Why is that question of continuing importance for you? How have your own experiences in the great outdoors affected you physically, spiritually, and imaginatively?

A) I live in the city, but I do get out a lot, into the woods. The West is a very urban culture, surprisingly so, and most of us who live in the West live in cities. What that means, really, is that most of the land around our cities is uninhabited, or at least sparsely inhabited. So now we go out of the city and suddenly we’re surrounded by wildness, or what these days passes for wildness. It’s something that’s very present in our lives. I was born in the Northwest, I grew up here, I’ve always lived here; and so I naturally bring this place to my writing. And because we are such a mobile society, it’s incumbent on those of us who’ve stayed rooted in one place, those of us who know a landscape, to regularly report back to the others, to tell the old stories, to bear witness. Just to say: Look, here is how it was before you came to this place. Here is what we’ve lost, are losing. Of course, the hope is that when you write from a deep knowledge and understanding of one place, you are writing about something much larger. If there’s such a thing as a Northwest tradition in literature, it has the land, the wilderness experience, at its base. Not at the center, necessarily, but underneath everything. Whatever else writers like Ken Kesey, Don Berry, and H. L. Davis have written about, the land is there, completely embedded in the work. And I guess that’s the way it is with me. I’m not always writing about wilderness, but the landscape and the way people relate to it are always a part of whatever else I’m writing about.

Q) What past authors have influenced you? Which authors do you return to as sources of continuing inspiration and refreshment?

A) Growing up, I was pretty hooked on animal and adventure stories — all the Ernest Thompson Seton books, The Jungle Book, the Tarzan novels, Doctor Doolittle, Black Beauty — in fact every horse and dog book ever written — Jack London, Mark Twain, The Swiss Family Robinson. When I was about twelve I got hooked on the formula westerns my dad was reading, and I tore through all of Ernest Haycox and Luke Short, Wayne Overholser, all those guys. By the time I got more picky, I’d stumbled onto the kind of western novel that was a cut above the formulaic stuff: A. B. Guthrie’s novels, Willa Cather, Dorothy Johnson, Jack Schaefer — Shane was my favorite novel for just years and years. H.L. Davis is an Oregonian too, and his Honey in the Horn won a Pulitzer. Then I read The Lord of the Rings and that was a big turning point. I tore through a lot of fantasy and science fiction. I loved — still love — Ursula K. Le Guin. I read all the early science fiction, Jules Verne and H. G. Wells especially. And I loved T. H. White’s The Once and Future King.

I’m more difficult to please these days, because I’m still looking for the adventurous story with something going on at a deeper level, and prose that knocks me out, and that combination isn’t easy to find. I love Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring novels, Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, Pat Barker’s World War I trilogy. The writers I’m reading these days seem increasingly to inhabit an enchanted world — I’m thinking of such books as Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s Reindeer Moon, Carolyn See’s Making History, and Karen Joy Fowler’s Sarah Canary.

Q) In a previous interview, you said that you meant this book "to be true." What, then, is the truth about Sasquatch, or See-Ah-Tiks? Are sightings still being reported in your part of the world?

A) Oh yes, sightings are reported all the time. There were two sightings in Oregon and one in Washington right around the time Wild Life was released, and my friends said it was a suspiciously convenient coincidence. In fact, they were accusing me of traipsing around the woods in an ape suit. Well, I am a bit like Charlotte — I’ve got an adventurous streak and a wild imagination, and that may be why I want to believe in the Wild Woman of the Woods. I’ve never had a close encounter myself, but I’ve sure been told some stories, sightings that are pretty hard to debunk.

Here’s what it comes down to: I want to live in a world in which it’s possible to believe in giants living deeply secret in the forests. When the wild woods are entirely gone, that possibility won’t exist for any of us anymore.

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