In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country
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Poet Kim Barnes grew up in northern Idaho, in the isolated camps where her father worked as a logger and her mother made a modest but comfortable home for her husband and two children. Their lives were short on material wealth, but long on the riches of family and friendship, and the great sheltering power of the wilderness. But in the mid-1960's, as automation and a declining economy drove more and more loggers out of the wilderness and into despair, Kim's father dug in and determined to stay. It was then the family turned fervently toward Pentecostalism. It was then things changed.
In the Wilderness is the poet's own account of a journey toward adulthood against an interior landscape every bit as awesome, as beautiful, and as fraught with hidden peril as the great forest itself. It is a story of how both faith and geography can shape the heart and soul, and of the uncharted territory we all must enter to face our demons. Above all, it is the clear-eyed and moving account of a young woman's coming of terms with her family, her homeland, her spirituality, and herself.
In presenting Kim Barnes the 1995 PENJerard Fund Award for a work-in-progress by an emerging female writer, the panel of judges wrote that "In the Wilderness is far more than a personal memoir," adding that it stands "almost as a cautionary example of the power of good prose to distinguish whatever it touches." Indeed, In the Wilderness is an extraordinary work, courageous, candid, and exquisitely written.
dangerous? “Why?” I asked. My father glanced at my mother, who sat with her head bowed. I sensed she was ashamed of this story, just as she was about much of the life that had been hers before my father. “It made us high.” I considered this tidbit of information from such an unlikely source. Pepsi and aspirin. I tucked the formula away. Maria would be amazed. “Did you and Maria do that?” I shook my head. “We drank pop, but we didn’t put aspirin in it.” My father uncrossed his legs and
Black Sabbath drown it all out—the mewling boy, Mike’s raspy breathing, the sense I had of being the ugly sister who could not work this miracle of seduction. My initial hesitation had goaded Mike into a stronger state of insistence, the intensity of which frightened me. When I pulled away, he was angry, and then my weakness showed through: I could not stand to think he might be mad at me, might be driven by my pathetic inexperience and prudishness to reject me completely. I fumbled apologies,
offered shallow kisses. “What’s the matter with you, anyway?” Mike rose from the couch, tucking in his Mr. Natural T-shirt. He smoothed his shoulder-length hair behind his ears. He was handsome enough, cool in our crowd and generous with his dope. Why didn’t I feel for him, this boy who would eagerly waste himself in my arms, what I had felt for Luke, whose elbow brushing mine had been enough to fuel a week’s dreams? “I’m sorry,” I said. I was embarrassed having led him on. I deserved his
Still, he would be like them, shunning me for my sins. And I didn’t care. They could all rot in hell if they thought a few months were going to change anything. The hills gave way to forest and I breathed in the familiar pine smell. Post Falls, where the Langs lived, spread out from the banks of the Spokane River, supported by a saw mill. We pulled to a stop in front of a modern split-level, so new the lawn had yet to sprout. I sat sullen until my father opened my door and motioned me out with a
Bible and prayed. I made up songs of grace and salvation on the piano. I attended church with my family four times a week and felt the eyes of the elders upon me. Confession through testimony let me speak of my worldly experiences with the freedom of a voyager. Even as my mother and father listened to their teenage daughter describe the shame and degradation of her past, their eyes held the pride I remembered from before, when I was young, in that other life. When asked to testify, I did so,