As Wild is packed with subtleties: from the painterliness of the letter H, to the residue of a war-torn family, which is waiting until its best days are behind it to show its true colours
In Wild, the narrator is a woman called Willow who is visiting the home of Ojibwe tribal leader Yellowjackets. It is a lovely, ageing house, its housespun décor and occasional messages from old men sighing against the wind like live crocks. Willow has married the neighbourhood gardener, Big Bad Jay. Here she sits in her “tiny lawn chair” and watches a typical hauteur with seemingly no relevance to her situation. She asks the old man about his paintings, and the old man talks of creating these pictures even at the point of death. Willow finds the anecdote immensely moving. “Just don’t go on until the end.”
The story opens in 1930. Willow’s brother, The Canissero, is a rustic musician to the Sault Ste. Marie reservation, and a huge fan of the indie band The Guess Who. He has left to tour with them, and Willow follows. She wants her brothers’ love. She hopes that they will abandon their lovers, the lively Tisdale couple. When the Canissero leaves to join the band, they leave with him and ask him to marry them. The Canissero accepts, but swiftly leaves. He asks the wife for a divorce, and suggests they go back to the reservation. The wife accepts, then goes over to visit her sister, Herself. “She had been a champion of imagination for many years. When I wanted to tell a story and feel the weight of the deed, I went to the woods. Herself was always bound by her wild socks and boots, and so careful she needed to strike them when they slipped on the ground.”
The fact that her sister is a multilingual thief isn’t revealed in the first third of the novel, but the more you know about her, the more deeply interesting this little gem becomes. Despite her muteness, Herself is a devastating character, wise and suffering all the while. Her appearance, so different from the Sault Ste. Marie past, gradually reveals itself as never before. As she grows increasingly reckless and deaf to the rest of the tribe, Willow could sense something was wrong with Herself. This is not a case of misogyny but racial conflict. For many Saultites, the Canissero and Herself are love interests for the same man, and a language barrier acts as a barrier between them. Sault locals were forced to go to the reservation, but the people there didn’t understand their accents or what they were saying. In truth, so many of them – including Willow – could not distinguish between them.
It’s fitting that, at the end of the novel, we feel that most of Herself’s cruelty and cruelty, though we were left hanging, was her own. Where Willow could be conveniently impaled to the poor neighbour in a wave of stoic justice, Herself could stab and cut and almost choose her victim.
The novel’s subtleties are vital to its success. One of the many facets of Wild is how wonderfully it dramatises the textures of both being and not being. The rustic country paintings are there to complement a script of narrative voice. The experience of reading Wild is like being there yourself, or at least you see yourself there. The immersion in both is like our involvement in the writing. As Wild is packed with subtleties, and though the story is simple, its analysis of individual impressions is in itself profound. The most trivial of things tell a story. When Willow lays down her sleeping beaver in the woods, or when Herself peels the chicken, or when the fretwork of The Canissero’s banjo is played, you feel the impact of these little observations with haunting intensity.
The world tells us we live in bleak times. Wild does not make a token attempt to make our worlds look even bleaker. There’s a hopefulness to it all, perhaps unknowingly. For now, Willow and Herself are at their best when they stand apart and steal the story.
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