Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Jill Myles's Celebrate Reading Pick: INTO THE WILDERNESS by Sara Donati

Today, we welcome Jill Myles as Celebrate Reading Month Guest Blogger.

About the Guest Blogger: Jill Myles was a mythology nerd as a child and never quite grew out of it. As a result, she writes funny paranormal fiction for Pocket Books and has two books coming out in 2009. Sex Starved is the tale of a nerd-turned-succubus, and is not quite as lurid as it sounds (sorry!). As for Jill herself, she spends her days writing content for a payroll software, avoiding small talk, and writing like a mad writing thing. She lives in Texas with two cats that steal the blankets, and a husband that does the same.

When Moonrat asked me to participate in this, I had no idea what book I'd write about.

There's the books from my childhood that I adored: D'Aulaires' Norse Myths with the gods and monsters that Bulfinch's never quite covered and the lurid, amazing pictures that stuck in my mind for decades. Or maybe Where the Red Fern Grows. I don't remember why I adored this book so much as a child, only that it made me bawl like a baby after even the 50th reading. Or Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey, the first SF Grrl book. Or Clan of the Cave Bear, the series that started me on my love for all things romance.

But the book that inspired me to write was an entirely different sort of book than what I normally read, and I thought I'd talk about it here. This was a book that took some of the classic rules of a story and ignored them. This was a book that took beautiful, literary language and melded it with a classic love story and made the entire thing readable. When I finished reading it, I felt numb. It had absolutely blown my mind and I wanted to write something just like it. This is the book, that if I only had to take one with me on a desert island and read for the next twenty years, I would take this one.

The book is Into the Wilderness, by Sara Donati.

At first glance, I admit, it sounds a bit cheesy. Donati breaks a few of the rules of 'taste' in fiction by borrowing some of her characters from Last of the Mohicans. The movie, not the book. I know. I thought the same thing. Not only that, but there's a chapter that's an entire tongue-in-cheek homage to Diana Gabaldon and her series. Beyond that, the book is a massive doorstopper at 876 pages of very small type. It's enough to make a reader run away.

But I bought a copy anyhow, in a fit of boredom. And devoured the entire book.

I thought the characters in this were masterfully done. From the very first line of the novel, I knew what I was in for:

Elizabeth Middleton, twenty-nine years old and unmarried, overly educated and excessively rational, knowing right from wrong and fancy from fact, woke in a nest of marten and fox pelts to the sight of an eagle circling overhead, and saw at once that it could not be far to Paradise.

The story is that of Elizabeth Middleton. She's come from a rather staid upbringing in England to the wild of the New York territory in 1792. She arrives in the town of Paradise, where her father is a judge, with the intention to set up school. However, her father has decided that she should marry the local doctor and big-time land owner. Elizabeth wants nothing to do with him, and instead finds herself fascinated by the Mahicans that live on the mountain and Nathaniel Bonner, the son of Hawkeye (from the literary classic). While some of the characters are borrowed from that other story, Donati doesn't beat you over the head with it and you soon forget that she 'borrowed' because the characters are so alive on the page.

The main character, Elizabeth, has a wonderful voice. She's serene without being boring, competent without being obnoxious, and knows her own mind despite everyone's attempts to tell her otherwise. She's a spinster and she's not ashamed of it, she misquotes the Bible to suit her own purposes, and she railroads her father into getting her own way. It's through Elizabeth's eyes that we experience the adventure, and Donati's choice in narrator is perfect, as the pragmatic (and sometimes amusing) outsider learns about the town from watching the actions of others.

The setting, to me, was as much of a character as any of the main protagonists. Paradise, the town that the story is set in, is meticulously detailed down to each cabin and its occupants. It sits on the edge of the great wilderness itself, and from the wildlife to the snow on the mountains, I sincerely felt as I read that I had been transported to frontier America.

I wanted to point out the language in the book, the lyrical way that Donati chooses her phrases. That was one of the big things that drew me to this story and sucked me in so hard. Yet when I flip through it, I find sentences that are beautifully written, but wouldn't do the story justice out of context. So I can't quote more here, but I'd encourage everyone to read a chapter or two and see for themselves.

I could get into a big long spiel as to why I loved this book, but when I closed it for the first time, I truly felt dumbstruck. Writers are constantly told to write a short novel. We are told not to mess around in other people's universes or we'll piss off the readers. Yet Donati does both, and she did both so well that it made me want to weep with envy. It was when I read this book that I thought that maybe following all the rules was not necessarily the right way to do things.

And it made me realize that one didn't have to follow them rigidly in order to write a compelling novel.

So I don't have a massive, mind-blowing moment of realization to share with the group or a book epiphany. Just a novel that rocked me to the core when I was reading it, and when I closed it, I wanted more. Better yet, I wanted to write something just like it. I didn't, mind you, but when people ask me what inspired me to write, I point at my copy of this novel (which is now held together with duct-tape from multiple reads). It's not the perfect novel for everyone, of course.

But it's pretty darn perfect to me.


Lisa said...

Thought I was reading a query letter at the beginning - I need more coffee!!!

Jill Myles said...

For some reason, I can write fiction all day, but when I try to write an 'essay' of sorts, it comes out like, well, crap. :)

I do love that book, though. I stand by my choice! It's not nearly as 'genre' as the new (albeit pretty) cover leads one to believe.

pacatrue said...

Sounds really fascinating to me.

JES said...

Wow. This sounds awfully darned good. I'm familiar with Diana Gabaldon's work -- for Sara Donati to have mucked about in that universe (and pulled it off, even better) (AND to have gotten a great blurb from DG, to boot) sure took some stones in the first place and a great deal of talent at the last!

Ever read anything else by her? Did she continue the pace?

(I notice on Amazon that one of her books, in Spanish translation I guess, has the enchanting title El Lago De Las Nubes. Someday I would like to vacation at the Lake of the Newbies. :)

Jill Myles said...

LOL - Lake of the Newbies.

I've read all the books in the series, and they're all great (though the first one holds a special place in my heart). It's very much a family saga, and she mixes a lot of American culture into the stories. Definitely give them a shot. :)

(And I think it's Lake in the Clouds, but Lake of the Newbies sounds pretty awesome too. ;)