Three stories show women surviving and becoming one with the wilderness
Scott O’Dell’s Island Of The Blue Dolphins, which was read by American schoolchildren for decades and perhaps still is, was based on the story of a lone woman discovered on an island off California in the early 1800s. The rest of her diminishing tribe was evacuated on a ship and she was left behind. When she was found 18 years later, no one knew why she was never found before or how she had survived in that time. She couldn’t tell her story because there was no one left to understand her. Her tribe and her language were extinct. She herself died soon after she was brought to the mainland.
In O’Dell’s novel, written in 1960, Karana’s tribe is decimated by a shipload of Aleut and Russian seal hunters. A year later the remaining islanders decide they can survive only on the mainland and a rescue ship is organised. As it leaves the island, Karana jumps off because she sees her little brother still on the beach. For some time she believes the ship will come back, and then that hope dies. As does her brother, killed by feral dogs. So Karana survives alone. She gathers and hunts. She makes friends out of animals and talks to the waves. Whenever hunting ships land she hides from them, but the pull of humankind is strong, and ultimately she leaves the island.
Jean M. Auel’s The Valley Of Horses, sequel to The Clan Of The Cave Bear, also traces a lone woman’s mastery of her environment as she locates a hospitable territory, builds a shelter, hunts and gathers, and finds a mate. But Ayla is a Cro-Magnon woman exiled from her tribe. Auel’s story is packed with geological and botanical detail, just the way I like it, but she can’t resist writing her heroine as Stone Age Barbie. Ayla has cascading blonde hair, an hourglass figure and, God help us, self-image issues.
Both books sent me back to Surfacing by Margaret Atwood, which I remembered as a survival story, but I found it went in a different direction. A young woman returns to the forested island on which she grew up, to look for her missing father. She is accompanied by her boyfriend and two others from the city. During the week they spend in her family’s cabin, she keeps her guests fed and warm as she searches for her father. She finds, instead, her own lost history. And she discovers what truly constitutes danger: men with surveying instruments, men with cameras, men with chainsaws, men with guns, men with power and an unthinking habit of violence. Civilisation, in short.
Like an animal, Atwood’s heroine is nameless and mostly silent. When the boat comes to take them back to the mainland, she flees to those dangers she can live with: fangs, claws, stingers and rustles underfoot. When her boyfriend comes back for her, we don’t know whether she will go with him or embrace the wilderness out there as well as the wilderness within.