In The Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country

Maud Casey reviews "In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country" by Kim Barnes.

Published May 15, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

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."

By Maud Casey

Maud Casey is a fiction writer whose work has appeared in The Threepenny Review. She is a regular contributor to Salon.

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