I’ve never been a “nature person.” Yeah, I went to camp, yeah I’m from the Midwest, yeah, I’ve seen and been in a lot of nature, but I’m definitely not outdoorsy or the first pick for a camping trip or anything like that. And yet, Peter Rock’s beautiful, heart-breaking, disturbing novel My Abandonment makes me want to go out into the woods and experience it the way his thirteen year old protagonist, Caroline, does.
The book came out in 2009, which makes it old news by review standards. However, a film adaptation called Leave No Trace (dir. Debra Granik) had a very successful premiere at Sundance. Knowing Granik’s history with Winter’s Bone, I’m sure that this will be the next movie that everyone is talking about. And so, why not start by talking about the source text?
The story is based off of a true one-- in 2004 a father and daughter were found living in Forest Park, a wooded state park near Portland, Oregon. Rock’s fictional account of that story is told through Caroline’s intelligent, insightful, but socially awkward and limited voice. She and her father have a small shelter and live alone, sharing a bed and almost all of their time, other than the few hours of the day that Caroline is allowed to wander alone through the woods. She is noticed by a jogger, who then reports them to the police and as a result, they are evicted from their woodland dwelling. After being evaluated by social workers, Caroline and her father are given the opportunity to live and work on a farm. Her father is paranoid, the extent of which is unknown or not understood by Caroline and therefore, the reader. Eventually, they flee to live off the grid once more and the rest of this tragic and stunning novel unfolds from there.
Rock’s characterization of Caroline’s voice is impressive, it’s naive and intelligent and aware and sheltered all at the same time. I found particular beauty in the descriptions of the woods, of carving her name into leaves, of climbing trees and feeling the wind, of day by day watching the progress of a decomposing deer carcass. What Rock accomplishes with these passages is that suddenly it seems natural for this pre-adolescent girl and a much older man to be living together in the wilderness. Okay, maybe that’s going way too far. Maybe life in the woods seems desirable, like they know something that the rest of us have forgotten.
Despite the disturbing hints at something darker in the father-daughter relationship, the love between Caroline and Father is pure and uncommonly strong. It’s the old trope of a young girl healing an older, injured or cynical man with her virginal love. It’s almost mythical. But it escapes a sexual nature because the, pardon the play here, nature of Caroline’s spirit and healing blends so effortlessly with the backdrop of the woods.
As a reader, I assumed abuse was going to be revealed with every page I turned. It’s creepy, right? A father sleeping in the same bed as his pubescent daughter. A father expressing that intense kind of love to her, supposedly naming her after her dead mother, I mean, everyone freaked out this year when that video of Tom Brady kissing his eleven year old son on the lips came out. And this is so much more intense, with a possible kidnapping, all those years in isolation for the two characters. And for most novelists, writing with characters that live in the same kind society as the readers, abuse or sexualization would be the natural turn, the only turn a story like this could take. But because it takes place in nature, uncivilized, stripping all societal expectations to the base, that’s what makes this novel unnerving and beautiful.
I won’t spoil the end, other than to say that I still haven’t digested it fully. In some ways, the novel takes a coming of age theme as Caroline transforms from this woodland nymph to a human being-- tougher, harder, though not disenchanted with the world. She watches other girls, wondering if any of them are like her, if they would understand how to live in the wild like she does. It’s what the reader believes she will do with that kind of thinking that changes your perception of the way she relates to the wild.
This is a quick read and one that will not disappoint.