The Bigfoot or Sasquatch has been a major figure in the folklore of the American Pacific Northwest — Oregon, Washington and Idaho in the U.S. and British Columbia in Canada — since before white Americans arrived in the early 1800s. Portland, Oregon, writer Molly Gloss has used that mythology as the basis for a multilayered novel that is one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read this year.
The Sasquatch is an American equivalent of the Yeti or Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas, a primate that lives in the wild and has somehow evaded capture or destruction by “civilized” folks and their encroachment on the wilderness. Sightings of Bigfoot in the Northwest date from the earliest days of white settlement, and their stories predate the coming of the whites in native legend. Even today there are groups of citizens, from UFO-conspiracy type crackpots to serious academics, involved in active searches for Sasquatch. And of course the myth is perfect fodder for spooky stories around the campfire.
A typical Sasquatch tale has a group of loggers or miners hearing strange noises in the night, perhaps catching fleeting glimpses of huge apelike creatures in the shadowy ancient forests by day, and then being menacingly attacked by one or a group of them, who throw huge stones at the men’s cabin during a long stormy night.
Gloss’ previous novels include a frontier tale of a lone woman homesteader in dry eastern Oregon, and a science fiction yarn of a group of Quakers bound for a distant planet. In Wild Life she has drawn on the Sasquatch legend to create a book that is at once a Victorian adventure tale, a character study of a woman torn between writing and child-rearing, and a searing indictment of the rapaciousness of Western men with their sexual appetites and their landscape-altering industries.
Its chief character is Charlotte Bridger Drummond. The novel purports to be drawn from her own diaries, found by a granddaughter after her death. Charlotte is an unconventional woman. Orphaned and raised by an eccentric aunt, she is educated as a free-thinker in the repressive Victorian age. Left a widow or abandoned by her husband after the failure of his business, she supports herself and her four sons on their farm on an island on the Columbia River by writing romantic women’s adventure novels.
Her own adventure begins in the spring of 1905 when she is around 40 years old. Her housekeeper’s granddaughter is lost in the woods, where she was taken by her logger father, and Charlotte feels it her duty to go and help with the search. She’s driven partly by guilt over her neglect of her own children, and partly by a desire to experience the sort of thrills she puts in her fictional characters’ lives. Charlotte herself gets lost, though, and in hunger-induced delirium has what may or may not be an encounter with the elusive Sasquatch.
Charlotte’s diary entries are interspersed with short pieces of her own fictions, both from before and after her forest adventure, in addition to quotes from newspaper articles, histories, and collections of Native American lore.
Wild Life has many moments of humor, brought on by Charlotte’s strong-willed refusal to meekly accept a woman’s role. She bicycles into town on errands, dressed in men’s clothing, a cigar clenched in her teeth, her hair done up in a matronly bun. She delights in confounding starchy storekeepers and reticent loggers alike with her verbal jabs. By the story’s end, Charlotte has learned to see more clearly into her own heart, and is more forgiving and less glib about the shortcomings of her neighbors, women and men alike.
The book adds up to a lively portrait of life in the Pacific Northwest 100 years ago; an exploration of the differences and similarities between “civilized” men, “savages,” and “lesser” animals; and a thoughtful meditation on the relationships between art, dreams and insanity.
(Simon & Schuster, 2000)