Outdoorsiness is having a moment. All of a sudden, popular culture is obsessed with people (particularly young people) fending for themselves in the wild. In comics like Lumberjanes, in fiction for young readers like Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire, in novels like My Absolute Darling, in films like The Mountain Between Us, characters are using quick wits and thoughtful preparation to survive in the woods without any of the technological advances we take for granted.
One might even say this wilderness preparation theme is getting out of hand in pop culture right now:
So why is this a thing all of a sudden? Why are human vs. nature stories making a comeback? It's too soon, really, to attribute any sweeping pop cultural trends directly to Donald Trump - a year isn't enough time to maneuver the cruise ship that is popular culture in any direction other than slightly to the left or right. But it's tempting to interpret our sudden turn to the jagged edges of nature as the consequence of our revulsion at the 45th president's golden skyscrapers and fast-food appetites.
Maybe, instead, it's a response to the dystopian fiction trend that ate our collective brains for the last decade? Perhaps after losing years of our lives watching groups of attractive teens hunt each other around booby-trapped stadiums in the ruins of our modern world, we're in the mood for stories of resourcefulness and guile? Maybe after destroying the planet ten million times over in our fiction, we're in the mood to hear stories that end with protagonists being found by good-hearted search parties and returned to the welcoming arms of society?
Here, from Seattle author Kim Fu's stellar new novel The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore, is a passage about an adult camp counselor showing a group of young girls how to start a fire using a few simple tools:
Jan explained what she was doing as the dryer lint she'd brought caught the flame from her lighter, then the matchstick-size shreds, the pencil-size twigs, and finally the branches she'd snapped into shorter lengths over her knee. She described the pyramid-shaped structure she'd built and how the fire would burn over time.
We've all had a Jan in our past: someone practical and clever who seemed to have a thousand different uses for a common paperclip. We all have stood and stared in wonder as a Jan in our lives transformed the shell of a Bic pen into a sun dial or a lock-picking mechanism, and we've expected that we would become Jan at some point during the long walk to adulthood, that somehow we would take on the mantle as a keeper of wisdom. And we all felt the disappointment that arrived when we one day looked in the mirror to realize that we would never have all the answers.
For the girls in Forevermore, that moment arrives soon after that fire is built. Jan dies unexpectedly and leaves the girls to fend for themselves in an expansive forest on an island populated by bears. Forevermore is an elegantly structured novel, zipping forward and back in time, following the girls as they try to survive on their own in the wilderness and then tracking them as they grow to adulthood and find jobs and get married and have kids. The events that play out on the island as they make their way to safety haunt them through their entire lives, shaping their experiences and perceptions.
Fu's writing is beautiful and surprising, with images that leave a mark. It's been a week since I first read this pair of sentences, and the image only gets stronger and stronger as days pass: "That September, the pet store she passed on her walk home from school acquired a litter of golden retriever puppies. They bounced inside the window display like popcorn in a popper." It's so specific, so simple, and so evocative that it should start paying you rent for the space it takes up in your brain. (That image, by the way, is the entry into an anecdote about one of the girls adopting a most unusual dog. That dog - feral, loving, imposing, weird - is the most memorable canine I've read in fiction since John Fante's hilarious and profane 1986 novella "My Dog Stupid.")
On the island, in the wild, they are girls alone. But as women, they live in a world with men. At a doctor's office, one of them has to relay her sexual history, "…every unrequired crush, passing infatuation, childhood kiss, anonymous pairs of hands. Her life as a series of men. What an absurd way to pass the time."
Those men have a more profound impact on their lives than any wild animal could. Men change the shape of their lives, both in their presence and their absence:
The day Kayla and Andee's father left, three years before Andee went to Forevermore, he said only, "Well, I'm going now." He took only the folding knife he carried in his pocket, his wallet, and the clothes on his back. Kayla understood this as a fundamental difference between men and women: men could leave, women had to stay.
And eventually, they raise boys of their own: "Her son, Evan, took his first breath. He transmuted from amphibian blue to shrieking red, screamed with the pain of the new world."
Forevermore is the first truly great novel I've read in 2018, and it sets a high bar for every novel I'll read for the rest of the year. In order to survive, the girls make some difficult decisions, and we see the results of those actions spin out for decades afterward. It's a novel that could only exist as a novel, whipsawing as it does through time and pushing our tolerance of amoral choices to the limit in a way that humans on a movie screen never could. Like the best fiction, Forevermore makes readers wonder what we would do in a similar situation, and it doesn't provide any comforting answers.
This is only Fu's second novel, but it's as intricately fashioned and as bold-hearted as books by novelists who've been publishing for decades. It promises you one kind of journey with the camps and the preparedness and the glow of youth, and then it strands you somewhere else entirely - somewhere dark and scary and cruel. It's okay, though. Deep down inside, you have the cleverness and the strength to survive the worst anyone can throw at you. You're a survivor.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the LA Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant