Title: A History of Wild Places
Author: Shea Ernshaw
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: December 7, 2021
Length: 368 pages
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Travis Wren has an unusual talent for locating missing people. Hired by families as a last resort, he requires only a single object to find the person who has vanished. When he takes on the case of Maggie St. James—a well-known author of dark, macabre children’s books—he’s led to a place many believed to be only a legend.
Called Pastoral, this reclusive community was founded in the 1970s by like-minded people searching for a simpler way of life. By all accounts, the commune shouldn’t exist anymore and soon after Travis stumbles upon it… he disappears. Just like Maggie St. James.
Years later, Theo, a lifelong member of Pastoral, discovers Travis’s abandoned truck beyond the border of the community. No one is allowed in or out, not when there’s a risk of bringing a disease—rot—into Pastoral. Unraveling the mystery of what happened reveals secrets that Theo, his wife, Calla, and her sister, Bee, keep from one another. Secrets that prove their perfect, isolated world isn’t as safe as they believed—and that darkness takes many forms.
Hauntingly beautiful, hypnotic, and bewitching, A History of Wild Places is a story about fairy tales, our fear of the dark, and losing yourself within the wilderness of your mind.
Author Shea Ernshaw has two previously published YA novels (including Winterwood, reviewed here). In A History of Wild Places, her adult debut, her powerful writing once again provides for a compelling read.
We open with Travis Wren, a man whose gift enables him to see visions of people’s pasts through touching items they’ve left behind. At the end of his rope after a series of personal misfortunes, he takes one last missing persons job, to search for bestselling children’s author Maggie St. James, who disappeared without a trace five years earlier. As Travis follows a trail of clues into the remote woods of Northern California, he finds evidence of an isolated community, then disappears himself.
As the story continues, the plot focuses on Pastoral, the isolated community that Travis had stumbled across some years earlier. Within the world of Pastoral, the community lives in harmony, led by their leader Levi, enjoying back-to-nature living, the beauty of their surroundings, self-sufficiency, and a simpler way of life. The drawback, however, is that no one enters or leaves Pastoral, not since an infection in the forest surrounding the community threatens to kill or infect anyone who steps across the boundary.
For Theo, his wife Calla, and her sister Bee, it’s a quiet but joy-filled life, with simple pleasures and routines, marred only by the fear of the pox lurking in the woods and even in a rainfall. They’re content in their lives together, even knowing that there are external threats and limits.
Our clothes are in endless need of mending, of stitching, an ongoing effort to make everything last for one more season.
Whatever we have is all there will ever be.
There’s an ominous sense hanging over Pastoral. The residents love one another and admire their leader, but the fear of contamination pervades everything they do, and they are essentially trapped within their own borders. Those who’ve tried to leave have been found dead or dying, bearing distinct signs of the pox. It’s quite clear that leaving equates to death, and that the people of Pastoral must accept their fate, to live permanently where they are, with what they have.
Events take a more dire turn when a baby is born prematurely. The infant will not survive with medical help, but there’s none to be had. Venturing to the nearest town to bring back help might save the baby, but would doom the entire community by introducing outside infection. The community’s split reaction to getting help precipitates a more dangerous turn of events, and this leads to Theo, Calla, and Bee each questioning what they know and what they think they know.
The cobwebs of tiny mistruths, little papercut deceptions, rooted in our joints and slung between rib bones.
How does this relate back to Maggie and Travis? I won’t tell, but trust me, the explanations and answers are fascinating.
I loved the moodiness of the entire novel. The author does a masterful job of portraying both the natural peace and beauty of Pastoral and its paranoia and fear. There’s a sense of impending danger in even the most ordinary of scenes.
No matter where you go, there are cracks in the plaster, nails coming loose, you just have to decide where you want to piece yourself back together. Where the ground feels sturdiest beneath your feet.
Likewise, I really appreciated the unfolding character arcs throughout the novel, as the characters learn more about themselves and their own secrets, as well as the bigger mysteries and secrets surrounding Pastoral as a whole.
The resolution is well-earned, with surprising twists that are justified by the build-up. Pretty much the only piece of this book that didn’t quite ring true for me has to do with Maggie’s novels, which are described as a bestselling children’s series — but based on the excerpts included in the book, I couldn’t get the appeal or why they’d be so influential. Maybe we just don’t see enough of them to get the full picture.
I’d definitely recommend A History of Wild Places. The writing is beautiful and evocative, and the plot is full of intricate characters and sharp twists. A can’t-put-it-down reading experience!
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