Daughters of the Wild: A Novel
Daughters of the Wild has an intriguing, deeply marketable premise: oppressed and repressed girls, isolated from the outside world, “tending a mysterious plant called the Vine of Heaven” in rural West Virginia. When protagonist Joanie’s baby is kidnapped, she seeks magical powers to resolve her problems. Here are the elements of a bestseller: a vaguely dystopian scenario, a feminist struggle, a magical element to disrupt the ordinary way of things.
It’s a great setup, but this marketing spiel isn’t a great summary of Natalka Burian’s first novel for adults. First, the story doesn’t centre on Joanie, or deal primarily with feminine experience. Joanie is the orbital centre and love-object of her foster-brother Cello. Though he’s not the father of Joanie’s baby, he seems to be the only character throughout who’s genuinely focused on the baby’s well-being, let alone its continued existence.
Cello’s age isn’t certain, but he carries the mantle of “generic teenager.” Like a figure in a young adult novel, Cello is less a character than an avatar for whatever the reader wants him to be, an attribute that is charming for teenaged reading but frustratingly vague in a book that purports to be for adults. That hollowness extends to the other characters, who act seemingly without internal life, and whose actions are often contradictory, apparently arbitrary, and never fully explained.
Even the characters’ knowledge of the world seems randomly chosen. The foster children are apparently raised in isolation, on magical hillbilly farms, yet at moments they are perplexingly sophisticated. An unwilling child-bride, sitting with her mother-in-law, “admired the bronze angle of her bent arm, and imagined, for a minute, that they were two women breakfasting on a European piazza.” Nowhere else does this woman show signs of this vocabulary, or awareness of the world. She has no concept of life beyond their farms, but sophisticated fantasies come to her easily. A similarly jarring moment comes when Cello (whose name is never explained), meets a professor, and fixates on the man’s “thin, cashmere sweater,” as though the subtleties of textiles are second nature to a boy who’s rarely been ten miles from the trailer in which he lives.
The adults supervising these wayward, fantastical children are at once brutally concrete and utterly inexplicable. An early attempt at stealing a few cuttings from the vine leads to an elaborately built-up sequence of child abuse that’s at once horrifying and completely emotionally detached. It’s expressed, almost comically, through the abuser’s complaints: “Sil, out of breath, dropped the branch and brushed his hands down the sides of his shirt. ‘Jesus, Letta,’ he said, hollering. He held his palms out to her like a surrendering man. ‘I got blisters now. Hope you’re happy you got your way.’” While the scene has the potential to emphasize the disconnect between adults and children, in practice it’s merely confusing. The children react apparently without suffering, and the entire engagement is merely absurd and ultimately detached from the story’s main events.
There are multiple children on the magical farm, but just how many feels a little unclear, not least because except for the two oldest, they lack individual personalities. Not all are girls, yet apparently only girls can do “the real work” of the farm. Given that all are waifs, chosen by the malevolent matriarch whose power feels borrowed from a southern gothic pulp novel, the presence of the boys seems odd, even pointless.
If anything, Daughters of the Wild feels like a book rushed to press without the benefit of editorial review, or even a thoughtful second draft. Key elements only emerge late in the book, contradicting earlier accounts. Characters who begin the novel with no understanding of their worlds suddenly come to epiphanies that apparently took place almost a year before the narrative began.
The magical elements are unevenly integrated, never fully developed, and weirdly detached from the main plot. With time, careful revision, a clearer sense of what the story’s focus should be, and perhaps even a sense of how the plot reflected the novel’s purpose, Daughters of the Wild might have become something greater than it is, a book whose existence is justified by marketing demands rather than the quality of its contents.