I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains, so I’m drawn to novels about that area. At the same time, I feel badly for authors who write about that area because I’m intent on ensuring the area is portrayed accurately. To me, the Appalachians, along with the Rocky Mountains and the Cascade Mountains, are among the most beautiful places in the U.S. but then I’m not biased or anything…
When I received In Wilderness by Diane Thomas, I knew an early draft had been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and it had made a couple of Book of the Month lists but I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was being marketed at online bookseller web sites as a literary love story but the publisher’s description sounded more like a psychological thriller. I didn’t see any way it could be both…how creepy would that be?
Normally I would have picked In Wilderness up immediately to find out but for some reason I set it aside; not sure why I did that but I’m glad I did. I felt like I needed to be in the right frame of mind to read it. So, which genre is it? It’s both and it’s completely original, not fitting any neat little genre category. In addition, it’s an ode to the healing power of nature. It’s also incredibly beautiful and powerful, filled at times with despair yet also filled with hope. It’s one of those novels that I can’t stop thinking about long after I put it down. And, confession time, I came really close to keeping it for my private bookshelves where it could rest alongside one of my favorite Appalachian novels, Cold Mountain. The only thing that pushed me into putting it in this giveaway is that I’ve promised myself and you that I will do that with all of the hard-copy books I receive.
It’s 1966 and thirty-eight-year-old Katherine Reid is one of Atlanta’s hottest advertising executives. She has always loved living in Atlanta and has thrived on the fast-paced world of advertising and marketing. But she is living proof that life can change in the blink of an eye. Katherine’s body has become her enemy and she’s just been told that she’s dying. She has weeks, maybe a couple of months, but there’s no doubt.
The doctors don’t really know what’s wrong with her but the bottom line is that her body refuses to accept and use the nutrients in anything she eats. She’s literally starving to death no matter how much she eats. How ironic when everyone around her envies her slim figure while they try to diet themselves into smaller sizes to look as good as the stick-thin models they see in fashion magazines.
“’What’s the name of this thing that’s killing me?’
Names matter…This doctor, like the other two, tells her he does not know the name of what is killing her. Among all the colleagues, laboratories, scientists, and sorcerers her physicians have consulted, not one has come up with an answer. She is dying of a lack of information.
If she opens her mouth to scream now, she will never stop.
By her count she’ll make it through Christmas into 1967. Maybe see the trees leaf out, but that’s less certain. Thirty-eight seems young to die. But maybe if you’re Ninety-six so does ninety-seven…she can’t quiet her trembling hands.”
So Katherine has made a decision. She’s not going to wait around to be tube fed and put into hospice, with doctors pumping her full of all kinds of awful things to try to keep her body alive while she completely loses who she is. Instead she’s quietly sold her shares in the ad agency and has purchased a small remote cabin in Georgia’s southern end of the Appalachian Mountains. There she can live out her last days in peace and quiet with no one forcing her to do anything to prolong what she’s already been told by experts is a losing battle. When it gets to be too much, she will either die naturally or, if she can’t stand it anymore, put herself out of her misery.
So she gathers very few possessions she’ll need for a short stay – only a few weeks’ worth. She drives past the nearest tiny town and on to the end of the road, wraps her meager survival supplies up into a huge backpack she can drag and sets off to hike the hill up to the cabin. Given her weakened state, she’s unsure she’ll survive long enough to make it but eventually she does. The cabin is nestled into the side of the mountain in a beautiful, pristine setting. It’s exactly the way it was portrayed by the agent and, after recovering from the hike, she settles in to await the end which can’t be long.
“…She is truly alone.
Which is what she bought and paid for, what the agent promised, but how could she know that this was what was meant? Always before, alone meant being in her house or at the agency with no one else around, but still able to hear noises in the street, muffled voices from an adjacent office, music from a neighbor’s radio. She had – has – no concept of this new alone, where there’s no one but herself for miles.
And the forest is not silent as she had expected. The wind in the tall pines sounds so much like traffic on a distant freeway that she imagines once again the agent lied, that she will come upon a busy highway around the next bend. Wishes for it, even.”
The only thing is that she doesn’t die on schedule as the doctors had predicted. Instead she begins to gather strength from the clean air, the clean well water, and her limited diet. She still gets violently ill when she ventures into town for supplies but she improves as soon as she’s back on the mountain. I would say that no one is more shocked than she is that she’s not dead yet but that wouldn’t be true.
You see, what Katherine doesn’t know is that she has a neighbor – Danny. Danny had been living in and making improvements to the cabin until Katherine bought it, and since she’s arrived he’s been watching over her 24/7. When she got there, he was sure she was at death’s door but then something happened and she no longer has an aura of death around her. And he’s grown obsessed with her.
“Given time, people lay out their whole lives in front of you without a clue you’re even there. You watch, always, with a degree of awe.
And if you’re Danny you don’t quit watching. Not even when they send you home. You stalk everything that’s human, till you think you’re better off with the wild animals so you set up house with them. Then one day here comes this red thing, and there’s this cosmic coincidence of you thinking you’ve turned twenty, only you’re a few days off. And there she is, and here’s you watching her – and it’s like you got a birthday present straight from God and Jesus.
Who fucked the date up same as you…
And he knows where she’s headed. He’s been expecting her or someone like her, ever since some asshole with a chainsaw came cutting a path to the Old Man’s cabin.”
Danny is a Vietnam vet from these mountains who has a raging case of PTSD, among other pretty severe problems. For example, something awful happened with a girl in San Francisco, something he can’t bear to look at. He might have killed her, but he can’t be sure, so he’s sworn to himself he will never touch another woman. He must not make contact with Katherine and he must not touch her, but he can’t stop stalking her and watching over her. It’s tearing him apart. He even sleeps curled against the outside of the cabin where she sleeps on the other side. Katherine has heard breathing there every night but, in her urban naiveté, she’s convinced herself that it’s a deer – nothing like a healthy dose of denial…
What will Katherine do now that she’s not dying? Will she try to go back to Atlanta and resume her prior life? Does she even want to do that? And would it even work, since the chemical fumes in the nearby town make her horribly ill? Is she stuck on her mountainside for the rest of however long her life is going to be? And what about Danny? Can he bear for her to not know he exists? What will happen when she finds out about him, which you know has to happen sooner than later? He’s already saved her from dying when she passed out after ahe became ill out in a snowstorm, even though she thought she saved herself. How much longer can he stay hidden from her? And what turn will his obsession take? What will happen when these two wounded people come together? Is he a very real danger to her like he thinks or is he actually her hero and savior as he wishes he could be?
Katherine and Danny are both wounded; Katherine’s wounds are physical while Danny’s are psychological. The mountains are a healing force for both of them; however, some wounds are more easily healed than others. Katherine is not just naïve about living in nature, although nature is exactly where she needed to be. She’s also a babe in the woods about the things that can torture a mind like Danny’s. That makes her incredibly vulnerable and it makes her underestimate the danger he could easily represent. Once they meet, and you know they will, can they be a healing influence for each other or are they doomed from the start? Also, has Katherine’s illness gone into remission or is it just in hiding, waiting to reappear again?
With In Wilderness, Diane Thomas has paid homage to the Appalachian Mountains in all their beauty and wonderfulness as well as an homage to the indomitable human spirit. Don’t get me wrong. This is a very dark, sometimes sinister, and always suspenseful novel. In Wilderness defies genre description, being part love story, part psychological thriller, part historical literary novel, part gothic Southern fiction and I’m sure parts of other genres as well…and it works seamlessly as a riveting read. It hooked me good. Even when I became anxious about what was going to happen, fearing the absolute worst, I could not put it down. For those of you who’ve been waiting for me to review another highly suspenseful read, wait no longer because this definitely ranks right up there with the best!
Can’t wait to read it?
In Wilderness was published on March 3, 2015, so it’s available in all formats from your favorite online bookseller below or in the right column for iBooks. If you download it as an e-book, you can have it to read immediately!
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One lucky reader will win a finished hardcover copy of In Wilderness by Diane Thomas!
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