From Goodreads: Thirty years after the Civil War’s Battle of the Wilderness left him maimed, Abel Truman has found his way to the edge of the continent, the rugged, majestic coast of Washington State, where he lives alone in a driftwood shack with his beloved dog. Wilderness is the story of Abel, now an old and ailing man, and his heroic final journey over the snowbound Olympic Mountains. It’s a quest he has little hope of completing but still must undertake to settle matters of the heart that predate even the horrors of the war. As Abel makes his way into the foothills, the violence he endures at the hands of two thugs who are after his dog is crosscut with his memories of the horrors of the war, the friends he lost, and the savagery he took part in and witnessed. And yet, darkness is cut by light, especially in the people who have touched his life-from Jane Dao-Ming Poole, the daughter of murdered Chinese immigrants, to Hypatia, an escaped slave who nursed him back to life, and finally to the unbearable memory of the wife and child he lost as a young man. Haunted by tragedy, loss, and unspeakable brutality, Abel has somehow managed to hold on to his humanity, finding way stations of kindness along his tortured and ultimately redemptive path. In its contrasts of light and dark, wild and tame, brutal and tender, and its attempts to reconcile a horrific war with the great evil it ended, Wilderness tells not only the moving tale of an unforgettable character, but a story about who we are as human beings, a people, and a nation.
Sometimes you stumble upon a book that makes you marvel at the sheer command and capability certain authors have over language and story. Wilderness is just such a book. Weller brilliantly describes the harsh landscapes of geography and humanity. It is a beautifully written historical fiction novel set during the civil war. There is not a wasted sentence in this entire novel (on a separate note: I would like to point out that I’ve never said that about a novel as I do believe it is a rarity. The closest I’ve come across recently is Something Red by Douglas Nicholas). It alternates between two defining periods in Abel’s life: 1864’s Battle of the Wilderness and 1899’s journey through the wilderness to redemption.
We catch glimpses into Abel’s life before, during, and after the civil war and how certain events forever altered the course of his life. It’s not hard to imagine that for anyone who fought in and survived the civil war (or the loss of a family), that such an event could and should define the rest of your life (and by default, the beginning). Abel is no exception, only the civil war is not the only event to leave him scarred. For Abel, neither time nor distance has lessened the tragedies he endured. Despite his solitary existence (save his love for his dog), he is haunted by his past. As events unfold in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, Abel is reminded that violence is not limited to war. His experiences are a poignant reminder of how beautiful and brutal our world can be.
Abel is undoubtedly the most engagingly written, complex character in the novel and although he is by no means a hero in the traditional sense, the reader comes to understand and appreciate his emotional, physical, and reluctantly heroic journey (although I greatly enjoyed Hypatia as well). Despite its relatively short length, Wilderness is substantial and haunting. It is a study of humanity’s endurance and the contrasts its forces upon itself – love, hate, compassion, violence, loneliness, companionship, hope and despair. It‘s a brilliantly rendered, meticulously researched novel, almost unfairly so; given it is a debut novel. I’d happily read it again and will look for what Weller writes in the future. Specifically, if you are a fan of historical, literary, civil war, or canine fiction, this book is a must read (and likely deserves a place in your personal library). 5/5.
Although this is not necessarily a book that makes you think dessert, I am linking the recipe to Mary Todd Lincoln’s White Cake featured on Eating is Art. Apparently is was President Lincoln’s favorite.