8 Novels About Surviving in the Wilderness

Robin McLean, author of "Pity the Beast," recommends books where travelers must navigate harsh landscapes in order to live

Photo by Todd Diemer on Unsplash

Though I am not a horse woman or cow person, I recently found myself writing an American Western. Pity the Beast started innocently enough—as a short story unfolding on a ranch in the northern U.S. Rockies with people in cowboy hats and boots, horses and cows. Westerns are fun to write, and I was hooked, ignorant though I was. As the short story moseyed toward novel length, and as the characters packed a mule train and saddled up and out into a huge imagined mountain range on horseback, I started reading books about survival journeys through a variety of harsh and wild places. Many were American Westerns too, some very new.

These books were, of course, useful to me in thinking more deeply about landscape, the cold-hot-hungry-thirsty smallness-of-self realizations that actual wilderness imposes. I knew some of this already. I’ve lived in very wild places for most of my adult life. I walk alone in remote desert canyons every day now, mountain lions certainly-sometimes looking on from cliffs, bears in Alaska before that when cell phones weren’t a thing. But the excellent fictions I’ve listed here were even more helpful to me in how they explored internal wildernesses, mappings of psychic and spiritual paths from Lostness to (some kind of) physical, moral or existential Foundness. 

You’ll notice that many of these books, like mine, center around orphans, widows and widowers, the abandoned, the dazed, the shunned, the outcast, and lots of women folk. The physical and moral stakes are high in all. As in all great journey literature of the past (think The Odyssey, Alice in Wonderland, Lord of the Rings), the travelers in these books must all navigate landscapes and mindscape through confusion, despair, rage mixed with love, elation and terror in order to live.

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

If you don’t know Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, you should find this classic. Tayo is a WWII vet who returns to his New Mexico pueblo, ruined by modern existence and war. Across a devastated desert landscape, Tayo’s psychic journey weaves over mesas, into canyons and caves and through uranium dumps. Via myths, poems and witches’ songs, the book asks how did Eden die? And how can we live on if or when we see the truth?

In the Distance by Hernan Diaz

In the Pulitzer finalist In the Distance, a young Swedish immigrant arrives on the American West coast alone and in search of his brother lost in transit. In a meandering path across the west on horseback, on foot, sleeping under rocks, Håkan ricochets through a labyrinthine landscape peopled by the bizarre and audacious, quick-on-their-feet con-men (and women) all striving for their daily bread and more by any means necessary, perhaps the most enduring of American credos. I like to think Diaz’s characters could be the great grandparents of the characters in my novel. 

Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins

In the Story Prize winner Battleborn, Claire Vaye Watkins’ modern-day Nevadans (I am one of them these days) are the true inheritors of the Old Wild West. In the short stories they populate, her characters are adapted to the harsh landscape. They are misfits, Manson followers, and missing persons. They inhabit brothels, dig desert debris of auto accidents, are quasi-prisoners in desert hideouts, seek out sparkling high rise casinos in Vegas where bad things happen. Watkins writes controlled chaos, dread and hope with the same virtuoso lines, wit and boldest of all feminist vantages.

Wyoming Stories by Annie Proulx

In Wyoming Stories, Annie Proulx can achieve more in three pages than other writers can do in a book. Beware. These stories are such impressive feats, they can prevent one from putting pen to paper. Proulx loves windy, hot, frigid Wyoming, portrays the West and its stoic inhabitants lovingly in her razor sharp prose. Here’s part of her love, though: she draws the ugliness too, the stupidity, blindness, roughness, the down-and-out stench of cow hands, the wink and cheap perfume of barmaids with the very same immaculate slicing edge. 

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

Train Dreams follows the life of an orphan (turned almost-murderer, turned childless widower) across America in the 20th century post-Wild West. He wonders if he is cursed as he lives hand-to-mouth, wandering the western states his whole hardscrabbled lifetime as a railroad worker, a bridge builder. The novella captures American history through one man’s typical and (mostly) non-self-pitying experience. Johnson’s elegant prose is worth the read, while the content makes one scratch her head about the American Dream.

Outlawed by Anna North

Outlawed is a genre-busting, gender-busting, Wild West myth-busting story, wherein the famed Hole-in-the-Wall Gang of the Powder River Basin in Wyoming are all actually a bunch of barren women. They’ve been “outlawed” by their communities and families back home for the sin of being childless. They seek a Utopian home of diversity and acceptance. They will gunfight if they must. They seek science over myth as North turns the Western on its head, as well as the telling of history itself.

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

In The Night Watchman, the families on the Turtle Mountain Cherokee Reservation of North Dakota attempt to hold on to their lands, homes, community and culture as Congress seeks to nullify their treaty, terminating their band. Their journey is to Washington and back. Based on actual legislative and activist events, the characters must maneuver through a wilderness of hostile federal bureaucracies, unfair working conditions, poverty and bigotry. It’s a David and Goliath fight, guided by the wisdom of traditional myths, helpful magical beings, hard work, boxing fundraisers, babies, friendship and deep faith in themselves. 

The Bear by Adam Krivac

I loved The Bear for its planetary scale and fairy tale vibe. I thought of a mythic, feminist version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—a last man standing story, but the last man is a girl. 

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