Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

Jane Kirkpatrick’s “A Clearing in the Wild” Explores Placement of Authority: Gender, family head, communal consensus, spiritual leader, nature, and (of course) God

Clearing in the Wild by Jane Kirkpatrick

You'll also enjoy the discussion questions and the interview with Jane at the end of the novel. This is a perfect book club choice, and, in fact, it is this month's choice for the Women Writing the West Book Club.

Click here to go to Jane Kirkpatrick's website.

Click here to go to Jane Kirkpatrick's blog "Harvests at Starvation Lane."

Jane Kirkpatrick at Reading

At the center of award-winning and best-selling author Jane Kirkpatrick's "A Clearing in the Wild," the first book in her Change and cherish Historical Series, rests a question. "Where does authority lie?" --in both the sense of placement of authority and its truth.

Kirkpatrick show us varying answers to the source of authority: gender, family head, communal consensus, spiritual leader, nature, and God. Further, the novel's story demonstrates the fault lines in having too fixed a source of authority, as characters come to realize that authority shifts with situation.

Indeed, the subtext of the series could be easily be: "Change or perish."

Emma, the first person narrator, and her story, stand at the heart of "A Clearing in the Wild." Impatient, impudent, pert and sometimes impertinent, 17-year-old Emma Wagner chafes against the chorus of authority that rises up to shape her life and her choices. Through her life journey in the novel, Emma "identifies a way to find one's voice within community," which Jane says was included in her intention as she wrote.

Emma however is a past master of invisible rebellion. We readers first glimpse this quality of rebellion in the ruffle she stitches to her crinoline: "It is a harmless vanity easily removed but on that warms my spirit knowing it is there, unique...."(p.7) Emma will marry and travel Westward as Frau Giesy, containing a secret that changes the scouting party's journey. Emma in her headstrong, headlong search for truth--first her individual truth and later a larger truth--becomes a wearver as "God provides the thread" according to an old German proverb her Mother quotes to her and that threads throughout the book.

Kirkpatrick deftly points to Emma's inner struggles and rationalizations along the way with italicized interior messages like: "How quickly our minds tell the story we prefer to remember." (p. 85)

Jane Kirkpatrick with her dog Fritz

Later, when the scouts have travelled from Bethel, Missouri to Fort Steilacoom, Washington, Christian tells his wife, "We look for our own clearing in the wild, Emma. As each of us must do in our own hearts. Perhaps this time without me right at your side, where you are asked to do new things that might frighten you unless you lean onto the Lord, perhaps this is how you will begin to clear your wild."

Communal consensus takes a twist when Hans, a member of the scouting party approaches Emma to beg her to speak to her husband of a plan everyone else in the party feels is the sane course of survival, but Christian is unwilling to even listen to. But, when Emma tries to speak reason to her husband, he closes her out.

Authority then shifts to inner leading: "That night I dreamed that my soul woke up... It was the oddest dream, but when I awoke, I knew what I needed to do." And, at great risk and physical trial, she does what the dream directs, and divine intervention arrives to help in the form of two Indian men.

The authority of the colony's spiritual leader, Herr Keil, shifts when he joins the scouts with a party of 170, his wife, a hearse with his son's body packed in the colony-made Golden Rule Whiskey to preserve it. His son's death, a mistaken arrest for treason, and the long journey to arrive at a place not up to his standards has made him disappointed, discouraged, and destructive of all the hard-won accomplishments in the new settlement.

Keil's decision not to use ammunition for hunting leads to near starvation. Just where is the place the Lord calls his people to? And who will lead them there?

Keil's wife Louisa frames it this way, "It is a sadness that either [our husbands] bears it," she says. "They follow our Lord, and yet they refuse to let Him carry their burdens." (p. 331)

Clearing the wilderness the settlers learn from the Indians. Sarah, Emma's friend, counsels that "The trees give [the Indians] so much [and need] to be noticed, witnessed to." (p. 211)

Kirkpatrick is skilled in all elements of the novelist's art: description, characterization, plot, and symbol. Lyrical passages streak through "A Clearing in the Wild." It is in the final symbol of the oyster as "Unique. Formed out of irritation" (p.334) so like Emma that the answer is finally found to the settlers' dilemna.

One of Kirkpatrick's favorite stylistic devices is inserting definitions and word origins to delineate theme as in this passage: "There is an old Norse word for religion that translates in the English as 'tying again.' ....life unravels us...our faith...binds us together." (p. 340) Ultimately, this is what "Clearing in the Wild" does best--tie together a tapestry of the life of Western expansion by a particular community and a most particular young woman--an expansion that left its mark on both land and heart.

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3 Responses »

  1. You've hit on several important aspects of Jane's writing. This book is a Willa Award finalist for good reason. Her research was very extensive but doesn't overwhelm in the context of telling Emma's story. It is an immensely pleasurable read and you've caught that in your review. Thanks!

  2. Wow! Thank you, Janet. I love your characterization of "Change or Perish!" That really was what the Willapa contingent had to do. When I read the accounts of that winter with Keil refusing to let them hunt for game and living on old potatoes and the fish they could "club" I wondered again if I could have survived those times. I have always been amazed by the hardiness of the pioneers, the way-makers. Thanks for reading the book and for highlighting it on your blog! (And thanks for the great tea and conversation at your home last month, too!) Jane

  3. Nice review especially since the book is our Monthly Selection at the WWW reading group http://www.womanwritingthewest.com/readinggroup . Hopefully you'll join us, Janet. We can use your interesting insights in the discussion. Thanks.

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