No Civil War battlefield offers a writer more metaphoric possibility than the Wilderness. Not only was the Wilderness a virtually impenetrable second-growth forest—“the dark, close wood” and “one of the waste places of nature,” as soldiers called it—but the very idea of “wilderness” suggests a place and a time of being directionless and lost. One wanders through the wilderness.
Novelist Lance Weller is the latest to wander into this literary territory. In Wilderness, the tale he tells proves to be a rich, dreamlike journey.
Weller’s novel follows the story of the Dickensian-named Abel Truman, a New Yorker by birth who finds himself fighting for North Carolina in the war because that’s where he happens to be living when hostilities break out. By then, Truman is already a broken man, haunted by a tragedy that has robbed him of his wife and infant child.
War proves to be the first of several wildernesses Abel wanders through. However, for the first few years, he “had only been scratched and bruised, had never gotten sick, and was thought by many to be a lucky man. Men took bets on how Abel would fare that day.”
At the Wilderness, however, a wounded Yankee, blind and dying, shoots Abel as his own dying act, “ruining” Abel’s arm. Abel is nursed back to health by an escaped slave named Hypatia, who in turn dies because of her service.
Abel’s wartime experiences provide only half the book’s narrative, which alternates back and forth between those experiences in 1864 and Abel’s later self-exile in the coastal wilderness of the Pacific Northwest some thirty-five years later. There, broken and alone, Abel finally has the opportunity to find redemption even as he’s haunted and hunted.
“In the fall of that year, an old man walked deeper into the forest and higher into the hills than he had since he was young and his life was still a red thing, filled with violence,” Weller writes. “He walked longer and farther than he had since he was a soldier, campaigning with the Army of Northern Virginia in the Great War of the Rebellion when the world was not yet changed and his body was not yet shattered.”
Wilderness is at times gritty and wild, lush and lovely—always poetic and always thoughtful. Weller inhabits individual moments with fullness and attention, which he captures through his gift for description:
The trees gave way to the back of a steep ridge that fell before him in a confusion of frost-coated stones as though something great and beastly had raked the back half of the hill raw. The day was clear and sunny on this side of the pass, and the old man could see across miles of snowy foothills down into the rolling green of Puget Sound. He saw the blue of the inland waterways, cold with the sun bright upon their faces, and he saw distant smoke rising from stacks at Port Angeles. And he could see far to the east, where night was already darkening the Cascades, folding Mount Rainier in shadow while a round white moon rose behind.
While there’s some description of battle, Wilderness isn’t really a novel about the Civil War despite its centrality in Abel’s life. It’s not his life’s great tragedy, though—a tragedy not even time in the Wilderness could eclipse.
Wilderness is an intense exploration of those things that make us lonely and those things that help us connect, about grief and hope and the scars we carry with us. It’s about the things we remember and the things we run away from in an attempt to forget. Like any wilderness, Weller’s novel is easy to get lost in, but there’s much to discover and much beauty to behold.