1881 Grief, detox, murder, and wilderness tips
By Owen Laukkanen
Toronto: Underlined, 2021
$13.99 / 9780593179741
Reviewed by C.L. Shoemaker
YA fiction by mystery writer and Vancouver resident Owen Laukkanen, The Wild is a third-person dive into the thoughts and ideas of Dawn, a seventeen-year-old drug addict living with a drug dealer twice her age.
When Dawn comes home to a parental intervention and is shipped off to a wilderness camp for troubled teens, detox is the least of her concerns. There, stripped of her choice and independence, she learns to survive while hiking among the Washington state forests with other cubs in the Out of the Wild program. Yet as Dawn hikes, ignores her grumbling stomach, freezes in the rain, and earns blisters, she learns about her group (Lucas, Kyla, Brielle, Warden, Evan, Brandon) and how to survive… until kids start dying.
A surprising murder mystery with building tension as the hikers are picked off one by one, The Wild is the ideal book for readers who appreciate survivor adventures, thrillers, or classics like Lord of the Flies and Robinson Crusoe.
Laukkanen writes in a conversational and realistic tone, reflecting the irreverent, know-it-all attitude of an annoyed teenage girl without food, shelter, or her cellphone. His short and succinct sections, almost mini chapters, showcase the point-by-point stream-of-consciousness of a confused and lost adolescent. Written in third person, Laukkanen’s perspective allows him to work as the narrator (introducing Dawn as if she is a character in a movie) and to present the internal thoughts of Dawn herself. Frequently the omniscient narrator provides inside information in a conversational manner, hinting at the dangers to come: “Before the dying and stuff happens” and “Dawn’s going to have to wait to find out … and she will.” This approach allows the reader to feel that they are best friends with the narrator, privy to hidden information, while also exposed to Dawn’s own thoughts and actions in her sections of the text. It’s a relaxed approach to storytelling and works well for a young adult novel.
While outlining the difficulties of hiking and camping on a day-to-day basis, Laukkanen includes discussion of the safety concerns a female member might have on an isolated excursion (female characters are groped and abused). Personally, I wondered how the women deal with their menstrual cycle while hiking. The book notes that all personal items are confiscated upon arrival and members are stripped and inspected for drugs. One chapter lists items provided upon entry into Out of the Wild, including limited clothing, food, and gear. Specifically, each member is given two pairs of underwear and one roll of toilet paper. No menstrual pads or tampons. It’s possible period necessities never crossed Laukkanen’s mind, but he is writing as a female character and should reflect the realities of that identity. Relatedly, he does not address approved or regulated medication—what if a camper needs prescriptions for a medical condition? Is Tylenol for a headache allowed or does a camper have to earn it?
In addition to personal concerns, there are also safety concerns. Every camper is at risk due to the elements, poisonous plants, and wild animals like bears, but the most dangerous threat is human. The first risk Laukkanen points to is abuse, with some members coming from abusive families. One camp leader, Christian, is described as “creepy” and having an improper obsession with one female camper: “Christian wants to keep [Kyla] in the Pack as long as he can because he has a creepy thing for her.” The situation later explodes. Dawn wakes to Kyla screaming at Christian and attacking him with a sharp rock because he touched her: “Touch my ass again, dude, I swear, I will cut you.” Christian brushes off the incident as an accident, but Kyla charges him yelling, “an accident? … Just how many accidents are you going to have?” With a significant power imbalance Christian, the counsellor, threatens to and then does demote Kyla to bear cub as punishment for speaking out against his actions. Despite there being another female counsellor present, Kyla is sexually abused. While Kyla’s demotion is rejected by Amber, the other counsellor, Dawn later describes Christian as a “freaking child molester.”
Following the abuse and Amber falling off a cliff, the group must team up to reach civilization and secure medical aid for Amber. Things takes a turn for the worse, with members forming alliances, campers being killed and bodies showing up. The latter half of the book chronicles the continuing murders as Dawn tries to find out who killed Alex, the first victim.
While I’m not a fan of stream-of-consciousness writing or a narrator interrupting the storyline with additional information, I can see how an irreverent approach would intrigue a younger audience. The style of writing feels more of the moment and reflects the thoughts of a teen struggling through an intervention. We learn of Dawn’s trauma following her father’s death and her unwillingness to let her stepdad Cam into her life. It’s clear from the beginning of the book that Dawn is living in a broken family and is disconnected from her mother and stepfather. She leaves home to hang out and do drugs with her significantly older boyfriend and has no respect for her parents.
Dawn also fails to process her father’s death; she harbours anger and refuses to work through her pain. When counsellor Amber enquires about the situation Dawn pushes back. Her internal monologue clearly shows that she does not want to talk about her father or her current family situation. Through scenes like this, the reader gets to know Dawn and feel for her messed-up situation. She’s not a bad kid; she’s a grieving teen who made poor decisions and is coping with trauma. As we see Dawn challenged through the program, and later by the horrors of murder, we root for her to survive and become a better person.
While self-centred and entitled, Dawn does improve slightly and begin to face her trauma. Even so, she has a long way to go before she’s healthy mentally, psychologically, and emotionally. Her broken and narcissistic nature makes her a difficult character to like.
Even after the murders Dawn still feels hatred towards her mother and Cam. It takes until the very last sentence of the book for her to give Cam, a dedicated and caring stepfather, a chance. The only positive family relationships she has are with her brother Bryce, to whom she is protective and motherly, and her nana, who seems unaware of Dawn’s drug use and narcissism. It is to her nana that Dawn retreats when everything calms down, choosing to stay with the elderly woman instead of with her parents. Although Dawn has opened up, she still has a long journey before she can calm her rage. Thankfully, she has cut ties with her drug-dealing boyfriend Julian.
While engaging in emotional analysis, Laukkanen also provides a heavy dose of physical threat and stalker psychoanalysis. Laukkanen delivers a nail-biting ending with enough bodies to rival an action film and mounting tension as Dawn is hunted by the murderer. If you enjoy horror or thriller stories you will be satisfied with the ending (which I will keep under wraps).
No one is safe in Laukkanen’s world. I kept reading, despite not being keen about thrillers, solely to solve the mystery and find out how Dawn’s story ends. On this merit and the unique voice and tone, I would recommend The Wild to any fans of the mystery, thriller, and survivor genre. If you find short, compact sentences, teen angst, and frequently changing narrative voices annoying then I would suggest you seek your thrills in another forest.
C.L. (Corrie) Shoemaker is an Assistant Teaching Professor for the Department of English Language and Literature and the Department of Communication, Journalism, and New Media at Thompson Rivers University. She is working on a book project entitled “Speaking of Shakespeare: Conversations with Canadian Artists,” and revising her dissertation for publication. As C.L. Shoemaker, she writes for Marjorie Magazine, sharing her love of vintage design, 1940s history, old-fashioned travel experiences, and the gorgeous antique lifestyle. She’s written travel, historical, and research pieces on Paris, typewriters, and the Nancy Drew books series. Visit her website and Facebook page. Editor’s note:Corrie Shoemaker has also reviewed books by Elka Ray, Slavia Miki and Roy Miki and Jack Easton for The BC Review.
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.
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