Wildwood is a contemporary pioneer narrative, Susanna Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush updated to the 21st century. It tells the story of Molly, a young single mother who must live in a remote farm in northern Alberta for a year to receive her great-aunt’s inheritance. Far from civilization, the farm has no electricity or running water, and Molly must rely on her wits to survive. To complicate matters, Molly is also from Arizona, and ill-prepared for life in place where winter lasts nine months. Her main motivation is the $1.5 million she stands to inherit if she lasts a year — broke and jobless, Molly desperately needs the money to pay for her four-year-old daughter’s medical treatments.
I absolutely loved this book. Early in the story, Molly muses that she worries about urban dangers like criminals and traffic accidents, but never seriously considered until now that nature herself would be a threat. That pretty much sums up the book: it’s the classic Canadian literature trope of settlers struggling to tame the wilderness, and Florence does a great job of making it believable in the present day. I enjoyed reading about Molly and her daughter Bridget’s adventures in figuring out how to get water from the well and how to use the outdoors outhouse as a toilet. I like how practical Molly had to become in her choices, whether it’s deciding what groceries are absolutely necessary for that month or choosing to get a cat to deal with the mice in the basement. Moreover, I loved the characters, from 12 year old Wynona, an Indigenous girl from a nearby reservation to bubbly and friendly Lottie, a lawyer’s assistant who dresses in retro funk and is not-so-secretly in love with her boss.
I’m not too familiar with selective mutism, which is what a child psychologist diagnosed Bridget with, but I like how Elinor Florence presents the challenges Molly and Bridget face when encountering new people who sometimes don’t understand Bridget’s boundaries. I also love seeing Bridget flourish in the solitude and calm of the farm, and slowly become more comfortable being around other people.
There’s also intriguing plot threads about untrustworthy authority figures, that are dealt with mostly in passing, and an insta-love romance that sparks without ever actually sizzling. These feel mostly like distractions and while their impact can be significant, the story doesn’t quite dwell on them enough to detract from the overall pleasant feel of reading this book. There’s also a secondary parallel story of Molly’s great-aunt, told through her journal, but while there are some touching moments in this, it never quite becomes as compelling as Molly’s story.
At one point, Molly admits she doesn’t miss having a phone or TV to learn about world news, like people getting killed or a cafe being bombed, and indeed there’s something escapist about immersing oneself in this story. Despite the pioneer-like struggles, there’s a retreat-like calm in isolating one’s focus to the bucolic problems in this town, and a comfort in the friendly warmth of Molly’s neighbours. I would definitely not call the pioneer era a simpler time, but the story does hearken to an appealing simplicity, and Wildwood is a fun read for a chilly weekend in.
Thank you to Dundurn Press for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.