It's not that I didn't enjoy Jean Hegland's Into the Forest. After all, it's a post-apocalypse novel where the teenage protagonists work hard at learning to live off the land to support themselves, with buckets of ecology lessons and not-entirely-inaccurate information about local First Nations, so what's not to like?
Well, as it happens, not much, I guess, but "like" isn't enough for me as a reader anymore. With my recent reading having been so good (Ozeki and Le Guin), my tolerance has dropped for books that might maybe be good enough.
Plot summary: No absolute explanations are provided, but gradually the power goes out across America (around the world?), pandemics sweep the nation (globe?), and society (or humanity?) collapses. Our story is solely focused on two teenage girls, Eva (18, a ballerina) and Nell (17, an erstwhile Harvard student), who grew up with their parents in northern California, about 30 miles from the nearest town. When the apocalypse comes, their mother has recently died of cancer, and their father doesn't live long once it really gets underway. The book follows their attempts to assume adult roles in the very short amount of time before they'd starve to death as children, emphasizing how they handle their vegetable garden and how they come to understand the bounty available in the forest (food, medicines, and supplies). Assorted crises continue to hit, and the conclusion - while apparently meant to seem comparatively happy - can't help but be unresolved.
(Spoiler alert in the following discussion.)
Setting the plot aside for now, I was fascinated by the slippage between metaphor and represented reality in Into the Forest. For example, the one notorious event in the novel is an incestuous lesbian sex scene between the sisters, some days after the elder one is raped by a passing stranger. Less anxious-making is the fact that later on, the younger sister is able to breastfeed her sister's child, presumably out of sympathy, but it's still a little different. Yikes, right? Except that the whole novel is about the two girls becoming a couple to parallel their parents, taking on adult roles with a division of labour sometimes traditionally gendered, and moving from being children themselves to becoming parents of each other and of the child from Eva's rape. The never-repeated incestuous/lesbian moment stands out from the rest of the novel, so it's problematic for the narrative's represented reality, but it has what might be an essential role in the development of the novel's metaphoric frame.
I had a similar reaction to their book-ending move out of the house and into the stump, too: it was their childhood playhouse, so are they reinhabiting the forest with newly adult sensibilities, or are they reverting to childhood? And did they bring the preserved garden produce with them? (Not clear from the book.) And haven't they rather abruptly turned their backs on a year's worth of learning about how to work in a garden, which is how they learned to sustain themselves?
While reading Hegland's book, I kept thinking of Robert Wiersema's truly excellent novella World More Full of Weeping, which is very different but which also features a child heading into the woods - Wiersema's is a wonderful book, far superior in effect to Into the Forest, even if I've inexplicably failed to comment about it here in spite of having read it fully two years ago now. (I'll be remedying that in the coming days, once I get some actual work out of the way first.)
It sounds really good on the page, this book, but ultimately I was dissatisfied with its outcome and its effects. Worth reading, but basically meh. The label "young adult fiction" shouldn't mark something as incomplete or unhelpfully unresolved, but as Into the Forest shows, sometimes that's what it means, and it's a shame for this book not to deliver on its promise.
Even if so many of its readers appear to adore it regardless.
And finally, a pox on Bantam's blurb-writer for this book! What crap: "Once in a generation we open a new book to discover a voice and a vision that have the power to change the way we look at ourselves and the world." Yeah, it's a cool idea for a plot, but is Bantam unaware of the dozens of other post-apocalyptic novels out there? Few of them focus on the perspectives of women, and young women in particular, but that's no excuse for this blurb. And clearly, the book's early reviewers (1998) were way too seduced by millennial thinking to pay close enough attention to the book's construction.