In the dreadful winter of 1609, in what was known as The Starving Time in Jamestown, Virginia, a teenage servant girl slips through the wall of the fort built by the ill-fated English settlers and runs as fast as she can into the wilderness.
Who she is, why she runs and what she finds on the other side are the subjects of Lauren Groff’s thrilling, brilliant new novel, “The Vaster Wilds.”
Groff, who lives in Gainesville, is a three-time National Book Award finalist; her haunting short story collection “Florida” won the Story Prize. This is her fifth novel, and each one is a feast of gorgeous prose (here couched in Elizabethan rhythms) and a story unlike any of the others.
The tension between fear of the wilderness and love for its beauty has long been a major theme in American literature, and it’s a strong thread in Groff’s books all the way back to “The Monsters of Templeton” and “Arcadia.”
It’s an important theme in this story of that runaway, a girl who is, by her own accounting, so insignificant that we won’t even learn her name until well into the book. She’s called, in the biblical manner of the times, Lamentations, and it’s fitting. Abandoned in a London alley as a newborn, she was sent to the poorhouse until, at age 4, she was sold as a servant to the family of a goldsmith.
There, she’s given a nickname — Zed, the name of a pet monkey that ran away — but is more often called Girl, or Wench, or Fool. Her pretty face and quick wits earn her the family’s affection, and her work lets her know them intimately. Her mistress is a fading beauty, and the girl’s tasks include applying her makeup, based on white lead paint, to meet the toxic beauty standards of Elizabethan England.
When the kindly goldsmith falls ill with the plague, the girl must care for him. Once she’s in his sickroom, the door is nailed shut until he dies.
But she finds joy in her most important task, caring for the couple’s daughter, “the child Bess.” Born soon after the girl came to the household, Bess is a golden-haired beauty — and severely mentally disabled. But she has a loving, sunny nature, and nurturing her is the focus of the girl’s world.
After the goldsmith’s death, the mistress falls hard for a popular minister. He was, the girl tells us, “as handsome as a girl, he looked like a feasted cat, his words were so golden and so sweet that they made all the girls’ knees tremble to hear them.”
But soon after they marry, the minister joins a group going to Jamestown, and the mistress, Bess and the girl must go along. On the trip, their ship is caught helpless for three days in a monster storm, but they are among the survivors.
It’s a mixed blessing. Jamestown’s people are starving and beset by smallpox; they’re dying so fast the living can’t thaw the frozen ground to bury them all. Beyond the walls of the fort live the Powhattan, whom the girl calls “the people of the land,” and the English fear them as much as they fear death. The fort is no haven, but beyond it is the unknown.
Yet the girl runs. She steals good boots and a warm cloak and gloves, dresses in several gowns and packs a sack with wool coverlets, a hatchet, a knife, a flint and a pewter cup.
There is no food to steal.
Groff renders her flight with stunning realism and propulsive force. It begins in the vicious cold of a winter night, and despite her starved weakness the girl runs for hours, for days, fearful of pursuit by men and beasts. Within days, winter pivots to spring, which brings mud and floods.
She suffers a head injury in an encounter with a mad hermit; her feet are so battered by weeks of walking that her toenails fall off. She suffers bone-shaking fevers and sees visions both ecstatic and terrifying.
But she is always resourceful. She eats what she can find: fish frozen in a creek, budding leaves, freeze-dried berries and, at one point, grubs inside a tree trunk. She dreams of becoming an old woman who never stops eating and becomes so fat she shakes the floorboards.
She shelters in caves and trees from snow, rain, a terrifying hailstorm. She treats her aching belly with pine needle tea, her infected feet with honey.
She heads north, on the flimsiest of pretexts. She’s illiterate but once glimpsed a map of the surrounding colonies that showed a large bay and, beyond it, a region under French control. In her mistress’ London salon, she had learned a few French phrases from guests, and so she aims to try her luck that way. It’s an almost incomprehensible situation for 21st century readers, whose smartphones lead them by the hand, but the girl is up to it.
Groff skillfully weaves the girl’s past into her forward flight. As she travels, she begins to see the wilderness around her in its ravishing complexity. It is indifferent to humans, not welcoming, but in a dolphin’s eye, a bear’s gaze, she sees something unexpected, and she begins to doubt, even though “she was raised to expect a savior, had been told from the moment of her birth that a savior would come to deliver her.”
But on her own, she has a flash of Eden. She gives a name to a type of tree with tasty buds and finds she can spot the trees more easily:
“Naming, she understood, made things more visible.
“As she walked, she began to name all the things she loved. ... And it was exhilarating to name such things; it was a kind of power.”
As she travels farther and farther from the fort, Groff draws the reader ever closer to naming the reason for her flight. It’s a stunning revelation, followed by an even more stunning ending.
Full of wonder and heartbreak, “The Vaster Wilds” is a dazzling journey.
The Vaster Wilds
By Lauren Groff
Riverhead Books, 272 pages, $28
Times Festival of Reading
Lauren Groff will be a featured author at the 2023 Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading. The festival takes place from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Nov. 11 at The Palladium, 253 Fifth Ave. N, St. Petersburg. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $75 for VIP and are available at festivalofreading.com.