Every so often, she glimpses members of the local Powhatan population, or the traces they have left behind. Children laugh at her. She sees a woman on the far side of a riverbank and raises her hand in greeting, but nothing comes of it. One of the most rousing chapters involves an interaction with a Spanish hermit, whose moving perspective Groff briefly adopts. We learn that he came to the Americas as a Jesuit missionary, and when his compatriots were massacred, he ran to the forest to hide, living alone for decades. He mutters to himself in Latin, but as he watches the girl, he realizes he has forgotten the word for this non-man. In this unsettling episode, the “wilds” of the title become a kind of inverted Eden, where language is slowly unlearned.
Oppositions between wild and tame, forest and settlement, humans and beasts are also steadily eroded. Fearing the bears she might encounter in the woods, the girl recalls the spectacle of bearbaiting she once witnessed in the city of her birth: a poor animal de-toothed and declawed and set upon by dogs. Later, when she does stumble across a mother bear with cubs, they turn out to be gentler than she supposed.
As in her recent historical novel “Matrix,” Groff is concerned with the way women make meaning in the world and eke out methods of survival. We sense the unfathomable scale of the girl’s task in a half-formed memory that reverberates throughout the book: “a parchment, a map, a fat bay drawn to the east and a ladder of rivers like the sun’s rays that climbed ever northward out of it.” This shard of knowledge, gleaned over a man’s shoulder at the settlement, is the girl’s only guide.
“The Vaster Wilds” is a testament to individual struggle. The girl leaves her home behind, but also, like the hermit, her language. As such, the other humans she encounters are largely ephemeral. She is a stranger to them; they are strangers to her. While I found myself occasionally wishing for the humor and vitality of Groff’s previous, heavily populated novels, there is no doubt she has the skill to carry this one-woman show. I know of few other writers whose sentences are so beautiful and so propulsive. The girl embodies a furious onward motion, as does the prose. Sentence after sentence, Groff creates luminous, sparely rendered images, the historical setting allowing her to play with cadence and grammar. It is winter, and the landscape sparkles: “The trees wore coats of ice so thick that they seemed glazed over with glass, and the stars shone so bright upon the world that the world shone back at the stars in stupid dazzlement.”