AS A MEMBER of our modern society, I can wholly identify with the urge to flee the confines of responsibility and technology to seek a freer life in nature. I quickly remember, however, that although I don’t have to go to work if I vanish into the forest, I would also have to give up Snapchat and, likely, indoor plumbing. As a woman, on the other hand, I can’t really identify with others who have actually done it – escaped into the wild. That is where Abi Andrews picks up, in her debut novel, “The Word for Woman is Wilderness:” a fictional story written similarly to a diary or journal, filled with natural science phenomena and social and political commentary as well as images and cuts from a documentary the protagonist is producing.
In “The Word for Woman is Wilderness,” Abi Andrews lives through Erin, a 19-year-old from England. Erin is a filmmaker and plans to make a documentary of her travels – a choice she often questions on the grounds of preserving her authenticity – that appears intermittently in the novel along with maps, diagrams, and sketches, as further commentary on her experiences.
Although, she really needs no further commentary as she leaves no stone unturned in her physical and metaphysical ramblings. Along the way, Erin immerses herself in the culture of each place she touches from England to Iceland to Greenland and finally to Denali National Park in Alaska. In each place she builds relationships with those she meets, from her “girl-crush” (12) she met in Iceland near the start of her venture, to the Native American woman who saves her life later on. Still, at the core of Erin’s rugged journey is the dissection of the ‘mountain man.’
Setting “The Word for Woman is Wilderness” apart from other feminist adventures is Erin’s personality.
Erin has the determination and grit demanded of a heroine, a ‘mountain woman,’ but her no-bullshit attitude and sharp, sarcastic wit are what make the novel equally refreshing and frustrating. As a testament to this no-bullshit attitude, Erin makes her intent clear within the first twenty pages:
“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” (19).
Although here she focuses on “solitude,” she expresses similarly blunt opinions on the masculine connotation of the wild (She mentions Bear Grylls and Jack London among others) in contrast with the feminine connotation of environmentalism, on feminism’s roles in different cultures, as well as on authenticity and existence. The titles of each entry give a taste of the Erin’s sense of humor; on the same page she proclaims “HOW MUSHROOMS CAN SAVE THE WORLD” and ponders “THE VANITY OF MODERN EXISTENCE” (235).
Erin is curious. She’s introspective. She’s irreverent. I think Erin’s persona makes the novel such an engaging read, but, at times, she also gives me a bit of a headache. Erin’s wild tangents make sense in that they follow her thoughts as she observes the world around her and the conflicts within her, but the massive range of subjects and the rambling nature of her commentary can become trying near the novel’s end. I was overall very engaged through the first half, following the different offshoots of Erin’s imagination eagerly, but I grew weary of the excessive spontaneity. After two hundred or so pages, even spontaneity becomes a predictable pattern. Still, I plan to return to Abi Andrews’ The Word for Woman is Wilderness again and again to satisfy my occasional longing for a life on the wild side, knowing I’m in for a laugh too– as evidenced in her sign off to the book:
“From Erin in the cabin in our wilderness,
Don’t miss this Independent release.
From Peyton in the classroom in our school,
-Peyton Miller ’20