A man vs Bear story? A Review of The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff 

By Ricky Jade

Set in the 1600s, The Vaster Wilds opens with a servant girl running away from an English settlement in North America. She enters the wilderness wearing layers of dresses, a cloak, boots, leather gloves, and a sack containing two woollen coverlets, a knife, a hatchet, and a pewter cup. These items are mostly stolen, but they become her beloved companions on her journey.  

The first chapter ends with a conversation many of us are familiar with. The girl worries about whether someone is following her, and this thought follows, “She shuddered and had to put from her the thought the tortures this bad man would do unto her if indeed she were caught. For a good man was more deadly than the worst of bears.” (p.11). 

Now, if you have been on TikTok at all in the last month on so, you will know about the “Man versus Bear” debate. The Vaster Wilds, even though it was released in 2023 before the trend, uses this theme throughout the story. Spoiler alert: the girl encounters both man and bear. And we get a very interesting answer to the debate. 

Plot-wise there is not much more to say other than that the novel follows the girl through her entire journey in the wilderness. It’s a story about survival and the girl’s physical health, mental health, spiritual beliefs, madness, and loneliness. More about her and her past is slowly revealed as she thinks of it, whether that be through stream of consciousness, triggered memories, night terrors, or daydreams. Groff writes in a very fluid way, like a movie shot in a single cut. Her writing moves seamlessly from a more omniscient perspective of the girl, what she sees and what she does not see, to as close as her own mind, to that of something watching her, to her dreams, and to daydreams. She makes you wonder how much of it is real and how much isn’t. What the girl and the narrator see and believe don’t always line up. 

The Vaster Wilds reminds me of Piranesi by Suzanna Clarke. And in that sense, I can’t really say much about what actually happens, because it will completely change the experience for the reader. It’s a discovery you make on your own. Both novels are short (less than 250 pages), yet they take time to get into. You need to be patient and give them a chance to see where it’s all going. Both stories are about solitude in a vast place and the madness that may come with it. While I think Piranesi is more successful in its story, The Vaster Wilds brings up a lot of very interesting themes and conversations. 

In the complete opposite of Piranesi, the narration of The Vaster Wilds has very minimal punctuation. And yes, there is no dialogue punctuation, which is a dealbreaker for some readers. But also, there is very minimal use of proper nouns. Both Indigenous and settler group names are not capitalised or omitted, whether that be Powhaten and Piscataway, or French, Spanish and English. Only a few things are given a capital letter, like “the child Bess” whom the girl had cared for. (If it wasn’t clear, the main character is mostly referred to as “the girl.”) And everyone else is “the mistress” or “the minister” or “the gentleman’s son” or “the glassblower.” Even when the girl is given a capitalised name, it is only ever prejudiced names given to her by others from her past. It makes you think about the power of a name and the distance, unimportance, or generalisation it creates by not giving one. It brings into perspective how it may feel for Indigenous people and groups when we see our own names omitted or country with no capitalisation. 

Groff’s depictions of the girls’ immense hunger really got me thinking about my own privilege. What it is really like to experience starvation when I’m here, worried about trying to lose weight, and feeling guilty for going on a Macca’s run before returning to read more of this book. The theme of hunger, while people can see it as repetitive and plotless, really brings into reality what is feels like to not eat warm, cooked meals every day, and how long each of those days must feel. It brought me back to reading The Hunger Games books, where Katniss is hyperaware and hyper-descriptive of the food she eats, how much she eats, how much she saves for later. Hunger for these two girls becomes a strategy for survival. Not the pleasurable or aesthetic thing we post on our Instagram stories. 

Everything in this story is bitter and brutal, it’s almost depressing. Her descriptions are visceral. You can taste what the girl eats and feel her wounds. Through the arduous journey, the reader is hoping and hoping and hoping. And to be honest, I was a little dissatisfied with the ending. Not necessarily because it’s bad, but because it’s not what I wanted. It was just too realistic. (Side note: this is why I have a love-hate relationship with historical fiction. It always makes me sad). 

In the end, The Vaster Wilds is not your typical plot-driven three-act story, but rather, a fable. Groff explores themes on the beauty of nature and the role humans, animals, and plants play. She dives into colonialism and differences between how Indigenous Americans and English settlers treat each other and the land we are on. She talks about the horrors humans are capable of and the too-common experiences of abuse on women. She talks about spirituality, struggles of faith, and hope. She teaches us a lot about loneliness and what it truly does to the human soul. We realise the things that humans, in their purest forms desire. Sated hunger, warmth, security, freedom, but most of all, companionship.  

So, if you’re alone in a forest, which would you fear more? The man or the bear? While we may fear both the man and the bear and try to decide which one we fear most, the most terrifying part is being alone. 

Ricky Jade is (mostly) a life writer. Her life stories inspire her writing because honestly, they’re weird and she is probably mad or sad or infatuated about something. She spends her days struggling through her final year of Creative Writing and nights focussing on whatever her current hobby is. She is also an editor at the QUT Literary Salon and a freelance copywriter. See what she’s up to on Instagram @rickyjadee and check out her other publications at linktr.ee/rickyjade.


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