Poet Kim Barnes grew up in northern Idaho, in the isolated camps where her father worked as a logger and her mother made a modest but comfortable home for her husband and two children. Their lives were short on material wealth, but long on the riches of family and friendship, and the great sheltering power of the wilderness. But in the mid-1960's, as automation and a declining economy drove more and more loggers out of the wilderness and into despair, Kim's father dug in and determined to stay. It was then the family turned fervently toward Pentecostalism. It was then things changed.
In the Wilderness is the poet's own account of a journey toward adulthood against an interior landscape every bit as awesome, as beautiful, and as fraught with hidden peril as the great forest itself. It is a story of how both faith and geography can shape the heart and soul, and of the uncharted territory we all must enter to face our demons. Above all, it is the clear-eyed and moving account of a young woman's coming of terms with her family, her homeland, her spirituality, and herself.
In presenting Kim Barnes the 1995 PENJerard Fund Award for a work-in-progress by an emerging female writer, the panel of judges wrote that "In the Wilderness is far more than a personal memoir," adding that it stands "almost as a cautionary example of the power of good prose to distinguish whatever it touches." Indeed, In the Wilderness is an extraordinary work, courageous, candid, and exquisitely written.
This memoir has a mythic feel. Poet Kim Barnes' In the Wilderness, the story of her childhood in a family of loggers, begins with her early 20th century forefathers and mothers and traces her years in Idaho as an 11-year-old healer in the Pentecostal church, a teenage malcontent and finally a woman returned to live with her family in the forest where she was raised. If the story of her hale and hardy predecessors -- who wore floursack slips and slept seven to a bed -- sounds like standard pioneer material, it is. But Barnes transforms her family's stormy ties to the soil in a narrative filled with striking, often grotesquely comic images.
Barnes' voice is just as sharp when it comes to describing her own struggle between a sort of sexy piety (she and Brother Lang "dipped like dancers" as she was baptized) and what are actually very normal, teenage "bad girl" desires. "When my father had left for work and my mother's insistent footsteps finally fell silent, we'd pull the tacks from the poster's corners and flip it over: there, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper rode their Harley, gloriously doomed, flipping off the world in perpetuity." Barnes charms her way out of cliche, turning typical angst into something a little stranger.
The book has its flaws. Barnes didn't grow up in literary surroundings, and could have included a bit more about how she wound up becoming a writer. In the last chapter, Barnes covers this part of her life in shorthand, but I was left wanting more. In the end, her eye for exacting detail makes up for it. When someone kills two cougars for dinner, she and a boy she has a crush on watch the kettles as the "skulls bubble up, the sockets gelatinous as poached eggs at first, then hollow." Barnes's talent lies in her ability to shift quickly between bold and deliciously ugly moments (as with those skulls), and clean and quiet ones, as when young Barnes watches her mother welcome her father home from a day in the woods. She imagines her mother thinking, "Even here in the deep forests of Idaho, in the wilderness, I can give you what you desire, what you love the most." -- Salon