Book Review: INTO THE WILDERNESS by Sara Donati
I've heard many OUTLANDER fans talk about Sara Donati's novel, INTO THE WILDERNESS, and finally decided to read it for myself. The book tells the story of a twenty-nine-year-old Englishwoman, Elizabeth Middleton, who travels to a remote area of New York State in 1792, to take up residence there with her father and brother. She soon meets and falls in love with Nathaniel Bonner, a white man who was raised by Native Americans. The novel follows the adventures of Elizabeth and Nathaniel, as they elope, flee together into the Mohawk lands, and try to stay one step ahead of Nathaniel's arch-rival, Richard Todd.
I liked the main characters, for the most part. Elizabeth is nearly as outspoken and stubborn as Claire is, but she is at times far too modern in her attitudes. I never got the impression that she thought like someone born and raised in the 18th century. And her attitude toward both the Indians and the black people she encounters seems far too late-20th-century-P.C. for my taste.
Nathaniel seems more of a typical romance-novel hero, tall and strong and handsome, but without the flaws and weaknesses that make Jamie Fraser such an intriguing character. I liked him, but he seemed a little too perfect.
I liked the descriptions of life among the Kahn'yen'kehaka. If you like the parts of DRUMS OF AUTUMN that deal with Native American culture and customs, you'll enjoy these details in INTO THE WILDERNESS, too.
I thought the descriptions of nature and the wilderness through which they traveled were well done, but it was hard to keep my attention on the story past the halfway point of this book. I admit I read the second half much too fast. It reads more like a series of vignettes than a coherent story that pulls the reader along. Elizabeth and Nathaniel have a number of adventures, both separately and together, but I never really felt drawn into their lives on an emotional level, the way that I do when reading Diana Gabaldon's books. This made it difficult to empathize with the characters or care about what happens to them.
I noticed that one of the Amazon reviewers commented on the lack of humor in this book, and that's true, for the most part. Elizabeth is a pretty humorless character, although Nathaniel teases her now and then.
And with rare exceptions, like the Scottish character, Robbie, most of the characters sound exactly alike. Even the Native Americans speak perfectly fluent, grammatical English, which seems unrealistic. Also, there are a great many characters in this book, and it's nearly impossible to keep them all straight (though the list of characters at the beginning of the book does help with that).
For those of you who are wondering: yes, this is indeed the book that mentions Jamie, Claire, and Young Ian as though they were real historical figures. It's only a brief reference (p. 320 trade paperback edition) but I was pretty entertained by it. Here's Nathaniel, describing his encounter with Claire (known as "The White Witch") and Ian at Saratoga in 1777:
"No, a white woman, and English by the sound of her. Ian fetched her, and then it turned out she was his Auntie Claire. Brought her into camp just when I was thinking we couldn't do much for the boy. And she hunkers down next to him and listens to his chest and then she forces something down his gullet, and she bundles him up."Jamie is also mentioned:
"A big red-haired Scot, wounded at Freeman's farm. I ran into him later again on the Heights, and I was glad of it, too. I've thought of them many times since that day."The reference to these characters is very brief and matter-of-fact, and it doesn't have any bearing on the rest of the story. To me as an OUTLANDER fan, it was both fun to see them mentioned, and more than a little bit jarring. My understanding is that Diana has said she allowed Sara Donati to "borrow" her characters for this scene (because the author is a personal friend) but that it was a one-time thing, and Diana won't do it again.
As Diana commented in 2009 on Compuserve:
Well, to be precise, she asked me about the two-paragraph bit in which she refers to Jamie, Claire, and Young Ian as though they were real historical characters (she doesn't "use" them _as_ characters in her book), and I said sure, I thought that would be funny; let's see if anybody notices. <rolling eyes>There is a lot more discussion of INTO THE WILDERNESS, Sara Donati's books, and the connection to Diana Gabaldon, on Compuserve here, if you're interested.)
I admit to being rather disappointed in this book. I've long been a fan of Big Fat Historical Novels, but this one wasn't as engaging as I'd hoped it would be.
If you've read INTO THE WILDERNESS or any of Sara Donati's other books, feel free to post your reactions here (whether positive or negative).