On the surface, you might consider Benjamin Percy’s chillingly brilliant new novel The Wilding to be a classic tale of man vs. nature. Scratch beneath the surface, and you will find that man’s biggest fear is not the beast without, rather it is the beast within.
Commonly, we understand frontier times (and consequently the literature of that time) to be about (white) human beings conquering the land and conquering those (man and beast) who inhabit the land. The Wilding has a kinship to the frontier—an exploration of the American far West, a land both mountainous and arid, where old-growth forest meets high desert. A wild place that many people have not visited and yet it is now on the fringe of expansion as more and more towns, like Bend, push beyond their boundaries into the wild.
Within The Wilding, there is a family in crisis—generations of fathers and sons and a fractured and fragile shell of a marriage—and there is a man in crisis—the creepily and yet not unfeeling drawn war vet, Brian. There is also a landscape in crisis—a once wild place about to be developed. Any one of these three would make the great basis for a novel but all three of them together, set this novel on fire. I typically read before bed but there were times that I was so on edge with reading this book that I had to put it down and pick up another so that I can make sure I would sleep. It got under my skin.
But not simply about suspense, this book is also about human beings: Justin, who has spent his life on the precipice of manhood, never fully able to jump over the line as he has been living under the thumb of his force-of-nature father; Karen, damaged nearly beyond recognition from a miscarriage, she hides her many wounds beneath her physical armor; and Brian, mentally and physically damaged by the war and grieving for his dead father, he gives in to a life time of impulses.
Each one of the main characters has a big decision to make revolving around their very sense of humanity. Will they give into temptation and give up what it means to be human? Or will they let their animal nature push through?
You will have to read to find out. You won’t be sorry you did.