Abi Andrews’ Erin defies her parents’ wishes and sets off alone on a trip to Alaska. She told them she was going to a summer camp, but in fact she’s going to a cabin alone in the wilderness for a month. And she’s not doing it the easy way. She’s looking for an authentic experience. Instead of flying, she takes the money she’s saved (about the same as the cost of a return flight) to travel by sea and land. She then has to earn her living expenses along the way. Basically, Erin is following in the footsteps of so many of the great wilderness writers she’s read over the years –Henry David Thoreau, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway. All men of course, but Erin doesn’t see why being a woman would stop her from becoming a Mountain Man just like them. She wants to ‘prove to myself and everyone else that solitude is as much mine as any Mountain Man’s and that I do not have to be relegated to loneliness and displacement just for being female’.
Books have clearly had a big influence on Erin, and it’s striking how well read she is at 19 (Abi Andrews is only two years older and, I’m sure, even more erudite). She refers regularly to Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, mostly dismissing him but sharing some sympathy with his environmental ideals (‘Ted Kaczynski would never kill whales’). And she discusses those books written by the rugged nature-battling male authors, occasionally noting their advice on being alone in the wilderness, but more likely to tackle their macho attitudes and the lasting effect their ideas have had on society and the general perception of women in the wilderness: Thoreau ‘said things like “chastity is the flowering of man; and what are called Genius, Heroism, Holiness and the like, are but various fruits which succeed it’, as though having sex with a woman would ruin your transcendentalism.’
Andrews contrasts this perfectly with Erin’s (and her own?) thoughts on books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, written in 1962 and which covers how (hu)man-made chemicals end up in the environment and people, and, for example, the evolutionary theories of Lynn Margulis.
The main running metaphor, however, is space travel (the final frontier), and the long, lonely journey of Voyager 1 in particular. And the book is full of fascinating anecdotes and tidbits such as Yuri Gagarin not being the first cosmonaut, but just the first to make it back alive, how women are more suitable for space travel than men, the disposal of nuclear waste (under Eurajoki in Finland) and the UK’s protocol in the event of a nuclear attack.
It’s a fabulously quotable book too. I found myself marking pages and lines that I wanted to come back to later (although I hate to ‘vandalise’ any book like that): ‘Almost every girl you know has a troll to remind her that her body is not her own;’ ‘If all the girls would up and leave like the boys can then how would any culture preserve itself?’
Erin (and Andrews?) doesn’t have any easy answers. She makes it clear that this is a journey, and a personal one, to work out what she feels about feminism and our place in nature. And it’s not giving anything away to say that Erin succeeds in becoming a Mountain Man and – just as importantly – in producing a great wilderness text that will fit on the shelf next to any Kerouac, Hemingway or Bear Grylls for that matter.
For the first three-quarters of the book, however, I had to keep reminding myself that this was a novel, and then kept wishing it wasn’t. I wanted so badly for this to be a true story, and there are certainly elements of Andrews’ life in it. Erin talks, for example, about winning a travel-writing competition for a story about a trip to Greenland which gave her extra money to continue her journey. In 2013, Andrews won a travel-writing competition in the Telegraph describing her trek across Greenland.
It wasn’t until Erin was finally on her own in a little Alaskan cabin, where she finds a diary stashed under a floorboard, that I understood why this had to be a novel. As she reads the diary, she understands why it was not the author of the diary who left it behind. From that point, I understood that if Andrews had written a nonfictional account of her trip, it would have made her experience less authentic. It would have defeated the purpose of the whole journey in much the same way as opening Schrödinger’s box to find the cat dead is, in a way, like killing the cat. A fictional account is the only way to preserve any experience she might have had, and it preserves that authenticity if we readers don’t know what’s true and what isn’t.
Once I understood that, I had to go back and read the whole novel again. And it’s a novel that I could easily come back to and get something new, something different and more each time I read it.
Any Cop?: A good book is one that makes you think about your own life. A great book is one that challenges your thinking. But it is a truly remarkable book that changes how you think, and The Word for Woman is Wilderness had that effect on me. I can’t give it higher praise than that.