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A History of Wild Places or Unreliable People?

Book Review

A History of Wild Places

Atria Books, December 2021

There are times when a book grabs you and holds you in place, keeping you entranced until the very end. This book was one such story.

Travis Wren finds missing people. It’s how he uses his gift. He brings the families of the missing hope because he no longer has any. Now, on the verge of disappearing into the Canadian wilderness, he’s been called again, hired by the parents of popular children’s author, Maggie St. James, to find her. After a tragedy followed the popularity of her Eloise and the Fox series, Maggie disappeared, her car found in a remote town in Northern California. It’s been five years and the family is desperate to find her. Travis doesn’t expect to find remnants of Maggie’s essence in the deep woods of the Pacific Northwest, doesn’t expect to be pulled by her over a snowy logging path until his truck becomes lodged in the snow, and he doesn’t expect to disappear like Maggie, but that’s just what he does.

Calla, Theo, and Bee live in Pastoral, a community founded in the 1970s by people tired of living the western life. They longed for a freedom they would never have if they remained in civilization, so they abandoned it, disappeared into the forest. Calla and her sister, Bee, grew up in Pastoral, love living off the land, and they love living in the little community they’ve known their entire lives, but Calla's husband, Theo, longs for more, wishing he could cross the boundary to the road that he guards every night, wishes for the days before the trees began to die outside Pastoral, before the pox threatened their very existence.

A History of Wild Places is full of unreliable characters, people who are filled with terror from an encroaching enemy they can’t see, soothed and assured they will be alright by their leader, yet knowing that something is off in their little village. Who will cross the boundary to find out? Who will risk infection and certain death? Theo seems the most likely, especially since he’s been crossing the boundary for ages, and most definitely after he finds an abandoned truck belonging to one Travis Wren. But how will Calla feel about his disobeying and leaving the protective circle their 90 acres inhabits? Will she turn him in for possibly bringing the pox back to Pastoral? It isn’t long after Theo admits to his infraction that Calla begins to question things about Pastoral, especially when she finds clues to a greater mystery in their own backyard.

Shea Ernshaw writes beautiful prose. I, for one, am a fan of lyrical and melodic words that lull me into the comfort of a story. However, sometimes this method becomes tedious. Every action, every surrounding was described using languid language that was meant, I believe, to make the reader feel as in touch with the earth and the surroundings of Pastoral as the characters are. I’m all about thematic prose, but there comes a point when it seems like the language has become a game, a way for the author or reader to feel superior in some way. There’s also the repetition of “my husband” and “my wife”. After finishing the book, I think I know why this was done, but when I was in the thick of it, I just wanted them to refer to one another by their names.

All in all, I’m happy to have selected this as my December book of the month. It’s engaging, haunting, beautiful, and it keeps you off-balance a bit, kind of like the characters in the story.

I gave A History of Wild Places 5 stars. If you enjoy lyrical prose and unreliable narrators, you’re sure to appreciate and enjoy this book.


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