Abi Andrews's The Word for Woman is Wilderness
bi AndrewsThe Word for Woman is WildernessTwo Dollar Radio, 2019
Some years back a friend told me I had to see Sean Penn’s film Into the Wild (2007) based on Jon Krakauer’s biography of Christopher McCandless, a privileged young white man who gave up his worldly goods to journey into the Alaskan wilderness. Four months later, McCandless’s decomposed body was found by a hunter. Many have embraced McCandless’s story as heroic, uplifting, a return to the wilderness we’ve lost. As someone who grew up surrounded by people (not just men) who regularly tromped off into the wild spaces of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska and beyond, I found McCandless’s story frustrating. That he was positioned as a hero made me angry because really, there is nothing heroic about the lack of preparation and naiveté exhibited by men like McCandless who go off into “the wild” with only a vague idea of how to survive. To me he is no more heroic than Ernest Shackleton was, leading other men to their deaths just so he could plant the Union Jack somewhere. That’s part of what makes Abi Andrew’s debut novel such a great read: through the adventures of her protagonist Erin, Andrews challenges the traditional patriarchal narratives of adventure, exploration, and constructs of “wilderness” in a story that is equal parts witty, charming, and deeply compelling.
For Erin, a 19-year-old from a middle class home in the English Midlands, travel into the wild spaces claimed by men from Shackleton to Thoreau to Bear Grylls is not just an attempt to avoid adulthood. Erin wants to experience her own journey into the wild. Initially inspired by seeing the film, Erin analyzes “how it would have been different if the guy had been a girl.” Though some critics have suggested the novel is one big send-up, I don’t read it this way. Erin’s suggestion that the male narrative embodied by McCandless would have been very different if he was a she is deadly accurate, “because a girl wanting to shun modern society and go AWOL into the wilderness to live by killing and eating small animals and scavenged plants would just be considered unsettling.” Despite the number of women (and girls) who have survived (and thrived) on their own in what white Euro-America calls “wilderness,” Erin is correct when she states that to society at large, “Wildness in women does not mean autonomy and freedom; their wilderness is instead an irrational fever.” At the same time, women are deemed not capable of surviving without men. We are told time and again that women’s role is only to support the men—in narratives from “reality” TV shows focused on Mountain Men (and their nearly invisible “womenfolk”) to John McPhee’s tales of the Alaskan frontier. For Erin, “It is as though there is something significant to learn in the wild but it can only be accessed by men. In the wild, men carve out their individual and manly selves, as though women are not allowed individual and authentic selves.” It is because of all of this, Erin tells us, that she decides to go to Alaska.
Erin also decides that flying straight to Alaska from England would be cheating, and so she travels by van, ship, Inuit dog sled, and fishing boat across the seas of Iceland, Greenland, and Newfoundland; then hitchhiking into Canada, and finally, Alaska. Throughout her travels Erin muses on everything from NASA’s Voyager 1 to the Unabomber, the destruction of the planet, sexual violence, the pill, and a recurring image of environmentalist Rachel Carson. Erin decides to document her trip on film, and various sections of the book are written as scripts—some are hilarious and others illuminating, but all create a space in the novel that is both engaging and a shift away from the deeply interior work Erin is doing on her journey.
In Iceland, Erin stays with a young Icelandic woman she meets on her travels, Urla, and Urla’s mother Thilda. Here Erin encounters Icelandic tales of Gudrid the Far-Traveller (Erik the Red’s daughter-in-law) and, as Thilda says, “Guidrid travelled further than all of her husbands [...and] proved early in our history that you don’t need a penis between your legs to make you a great adventurer.” Erin discovers in Iceland what many of us feel upon leaving “civilization” and going off into the vast spaces away from cities and suburbia, describing it as like “finding an object you never noticed was missing until you found it and realized its lack had been haunting you all along.” The lack is a connection to nature untrammeled, to the wild places and spaces that Erin encounters as she travels across the ocean and ice on her way to Alaska. But of course, Erin realizes that these places aren’t completely unpopulated—despite what white adventurers may claim.
As she travels, Erin is confronted by assumptions based on her gender: a fishing boat captain who thinks she brings the boat bad luck, a kindly whale researcher who urges her to check in regularly (assuming she needs male protection to survive), two clueless male travelers who don’t want her to camp out on the ice (claiming an impossible sighting of a polar bear), and of course, the constant threat of sexual violence presented by drivers and hostel owners, bar patrons, and travel companions. Sitting in a diner in Canada, Erin muses on being alone in any space as a woman: “Women can’t eat alone unless we claim it, can’t go to a bar and sit alone, be in solitude in social places, as though always the female body is a lonely body, an invitation.” Erin comes into her own through her travels and in the time she spends in a cabin in Alaska. Her brain keeps her busy in musings about symbiosis versus Darwinian theory, in the connections between women and the planet, in the future that humanity may or may not have, and on the destruction that we enact daily. So many of Erin’s touchstones are male, and eventually she comes to the conclusion that “my whole journey has been compliance. I can Buck as well as any man, but now I understand it better, why would I want to be like them, the Mountain Men?” That is the heart of this brilliant and messy novel: how do we as women come to a connection with our planet and ourselves when our models, even our languages, are male? As Erin states beautifully toward the end of the novel,
man says I am civilized, and the rest is woman and wilderness. So what is woman? Is she where the symbols aren’t? Woman is wilderness, if she is man’s unwordable other. Woman is closer to the mountain and the wolf than man even if only because he put her there. Therefore, woman can listen better than man, if not as well as the mountain, to the real howl of the wolf.