Wednesday, January 20, 2016

REVIEW | Into the Wilderness by Sara Donati

Into the Wilderness by Sara Donati
Publication Year: 1998
Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance
Series: Wilderness #1
Awards: NA
Format: eBook (from Library)
Narrator: NA

WHY?:  I forget exactly where I saw this book recommended but I was so excited about it, I immediately put it on hold at the library.  Even though it was published 18 years ago I had to wait for months to get it.  I speculate that it's current popularity is related to it being compared to Outlander, which is having a very hot moment indeed.

SYNOPSIS:  Elizabeth Middleton travels from England to join her father in a small town he founded in upstate New York, circa 1790. She is 29 years old, a spinster and her dream is to start a school in the town.  Her plans quickly become much more complicated when she makes the acquaintance of Nathaniel Bonner, a widower and self-sufficient homesteader who lives a life somewhere between the world of the European Settlers and the native peoples of the area.  She feels drawn to him and when she gives into temptation it sets her on an adventure through the American wilderness.

This book took me forever to read.  It weighs in at 878 pages so it is an official chunkster but it should not have taken the month and a half that I ended up needing to get through it.  Part of the reason it went slowly was a quirk of mine that has popped up in a few books lately and that makes it hard for me to decide whether I liked the book or not.  The problem lies primarily with the female protagonist because I am decidedly choosy about female characters.  Whether this choosiness is from some anti-feminist bias that I have internalized unconsciously or whether I just demand, what I deem to be, realistic portrayals of female characters, I don't know, and is probably fodder for another post.  The bottom line is that I don't connect with the main female character and this fact ends up casting a pall over what is otherwise a pretty fantastic book.  I have run into this in two other books lately (Cast in Shadow, and The Founding) and I aim to review both of them this week too.

However, I need to back up and say a little more about Into the Wilderness.  This book and its series frequently gets compared to the Outlander series and even features a cameo from the two main characters from Outlander.  There are other similarities as well and I think if you are a fan of that series, Into the Wilderness is worth checking out.  It's historical fiction, heavy on the romance but it can't really be called a historical romance.  The plot and setting are too much front and center to put it into the romance genre.

The historical details and ambiance were the biggest strengths of the book for me.  Donati is able to relate a wealth of information about the time period and the culture of the time without it ever feeling like she is imparting the information. If you are history buff with an eye for accurate details, it may not stand up but if you are just interested in feeling a historical setting you should be pleased by Into the Wilderness.  Nathaniel and his father, though they are of European descent, have close ties to the native peoples in the area and this gives Donati the ability to present the world through the lens of both.  It all feels very authentic and easy to sink into.  As a Wildlife Biologist, I particularly enjoyed that the book touched on the hunting of game, even introducing the seeds that would give birth to the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. [ASIDE: In simple terms the European model is that the landowner owns all the game on his land and sole hunting rights vs. the North American Model where the hunter owns the game (as long as he isn't trespassing etc...) - i.e. the game is not "owned" but belongs equally to all who wish to pursue.  The seven tenets of the NA Model are called the seven sisters and they are quite shockingly socialist and beautiful...and also the cause of a lot of debate.]

The story is epic and full of complications and adventure.  It's a soap opera but without all the negative connotations that description might bring.  It's emotional, suspenseful, exciting and romantic.  When I sat down to read, I would easily get sucked in and it kept me up past my bed time a couple nights.   If you have any interest in this time period, in stories that take place in the wilderness or on a frontier, I think you will really enjoy this book.

So why am I only giving the book 3 out of 5 stars?  I think because of those quirky personal preferences I mention above and which I will try to describe clearly below so that if they are things that bother you too, you can be at least prepared.  I think it's important to point out, to offset what may turn out to be a bit of a rant below, that even with the mediocre rating and my issues, I am very interested in continuing on in the series and reading other books by Sara Donati.

A lot of my issues center around the character of Elizabeth.  She and Nathaniel are the perspective characters for much of the book but she is much more its main character.  On the surface she is a great female role model character - independent, strong willed, tough, brave, feminine and smart. And she ended up annoying the crud out of me.

Some of the irritation surrounds the romance.  I generally enjoyed Nathaniel and Elizabeth as a pair and I liked them together but their "courtship" feels a lot like insta-love. They spend perhaps 12 hours total in each others company before she chucks everything, betrays her family and they run off together.  So much for the independent spinster.  I am inordinately fond of a slow-burn romance and hate when things happen so fast.  I would have much preferred if she had resisted the attraction a little longer out of loyalty to her independence and perhaps a little emotional fear. Or perhaps you keep the quick marriage but make it one of mutual benefit and not emotion and have the love develop after?  This would have allowed the plot to follow the same path since the quick marriage is key to the plot. As it was, I couldn't help getting a little gleeful with every conflict the two have after they are married usually because Elizabeth realizes she doesn't really know Nathaniel or anything about him.

I also had a hard time not seeing Elizabeth as selfish and disloyal when she screws over her father to run off with Nathaniel.  Sure her Dad kind of deserves it but his main failing is that he is weak-willed, ineffectual and a product of his time; he is not evil or cruel so it doesn't quite sit right and doesn't reflect well on her that she just turns her back on him for a man she's known for only a few weeks.  Honestly I would've been more engaged by her if she had been a little more outwardly and admittedly selfish which she could have later regretted and tried to fix, but in fact she's pretty self-righteous about it all and the story backs her up. Blergh.

In the end, I just didn't believe in Elizabeth and thought Donati made her a little too extraordinary.  She's super smart and well educated, she adjusts to hard hiking in the wilderness in the span of 3 days even though up to this point she has been a pampered English miss, she's a perfect judge of character who always knows just the right thing to say.  She defies Nathaniel when she should and it only makes him love her more.  As does everybody who is good in the book.  They all adore her.  It's not fair to call her a Mary Sue as she is too fleshed out but she is definitely just a little too unbelievably talented at and right-minded about everything.  So of course I found her boring at best and annoying at worst.  She was not relatable.  To be fair, Nathaniel also is a bit too unbelievably wonderful.  I would have liked and been interested in them more if they had some real and believable weaknesses and more interesting personalities.

FINAL VERDICT:  A fantastic historical setting and wilderness adventure story that I would have liked better with more interesting characters.  3 out of 5 stars.

Other Opinions are Available: Susie's Blog | Outlandish Observations

A couple of additional random notes:
  • I frequently found myself thinking that Nathaniel reminded me of Daniel Day Lewis in Last of the Mohicans.  In fact, his father "Hawkeye" is meant to be the older Daniel Day Lewis character from the movie, making this professional movie fan fic:).
  • How do I think this compared to Outlander?  I have tried getting through the first book in that series twice and have abandoned the book twice halfway.  So, for me, this book was superior:). 

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