Author | Lance Weller
Bloomsbury USA| 2012
Hardcover: 304 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
Review Source: Personal Copy
The old man began to tremble, though the wind was still mild and the rain still warm. He could not help but see, once again, war’s sights and hear war’s sounds and know, once more, war’s hard gifts that are so difficult to live with after the war.
After Lee surrendered in 1865, Abel Truman raced westward hoping to outrun the memory of the sights and sounds of war. When he found himself as far west as possible on the beach of the Pacific Ocean, he built a driftwood shack. For many lonely years he lived surrounded by the memories of the now long dead from his previous life. His sole companion was an old dog that wandered into his life and they loved each other unconditionally.
On what would be his last morning in that idyllic setting, while scouring his beach for washed up treasures, Abel came across a blue door that triggered a tsunami of emotion and loss that drove him to the edge of despair. As casually as picking a flower, Abel burned his home and began to walk without purpose or forethought into an unknown future, dragging with him his heavy past.
“A fire burned from the little stone-lined pit…the night before he left…The old man did not yet know that he was going but he felt something inside him shift. The dog sensed his despair and knew what the old man did not… that he would soon try a thing and fail…The dog also knew that they would not return.”
Abel’s story is complicated and must be savored slowly to capture the author’s true purpose. The story is so much more than the Civil War. Yes, the Civil War scenes are severe but hidden in the carnage is the individual humanity of each soldier. The reader is made to lie down in the dirt, crawl inside the mind of each character, and become a witness to history. When Abel’s torturous nightmares flare, it is as though you are remembering with him. We find in the heat of battle that each man reveals his true nature. Here’s a snippet from a battle scene with the battle-hardened Abel and David Abernathy, a young man, facing his first fight.
David’s knuckles were white upon his rifle, barrel and stock. His eyes stung with sweat…He was distantly aware [that] his spectacles had slid down the long thin line of his nose until he eyed the coming battle over their moon-round tops. A spattering of bullets sent sprays of dirt over him…[Abel] reached out one grimy finger and gently pushed David’s spectacles back up his nose, then patted his shoulder with an air of the paternal…Abel, good-naturedly nodding toward the field said, ‘When you do fire, point it thataway.’
Let’s head back to Abel’s last journey as he encounters others for the first time in many years. He finds that mankind hasn’t changed. The world is still a dangerous place and his body, scarred from war, is repeatedly mauled by miscreants, tossed aside like a broken doll. But he also finds good Samaritans willing to nurse him back to health often jeopardizing their own safety.
As Abel fights his aging body and the elements, he too, exhibits his strength and courage – his ability to spit in the eye of death. And as often as he has been dragged back to the land of the living, he offers the same care to others.
Weller has crafted each secondary character so well that you smell their fear, recognize their intentions and applaud their courage and sacrifice. As Abel faces winter’s wrath, keep a sweater handy as you will feel the frigid elements to your core.The story is riddled with loyalty, caring, brutal savagery, racism, pain, redemption, and finally, peace.
Lovers of the movie and/or the book, Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, will be drawn to Wilderness. I forgave the author for challenging this old man and his dog with so many perils. At times, it did seem so over the top, but I will admit to a few tears and flushes of frustration, anger and futility as I struggled to embrace Abel and offer comfort and friendship.
Highly recommended for those willing to take on life’s roughest edges head-on.