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>

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).


Aven said...

I enjoyed the whole series very much. Not as much as Diana's books. IIRC, the characters are better developed as the series progresses. Especially Hannah as she grows up. She was my favorite I think.

Unknown said...

I picked up Into the Wilderness because it had a recommendation from Diana Gabaldon on the cover. I read it while waiting for ABOSAA to be published. I was starved for Claire and Jamie, and got a thrill from seeing them mentioned in the story.

I gave it to my Outlander Buddy to read. We were in agreement that 'it's not Jamie and Claire, but it's an okay book.' I enjoyed the story overall, but I didn't have intense feelings about any of the characters, as I have for the people in Diana's books.

Also, I've read all of the sequels to Into the Wilderness, except the latest one, and I don't remember much about them. Not because i have a bad memory, just that the stories didn't make much of an impression on me.

I will check out the Compuserve link. Thanks.

Belinda said...

I read this book a couple of years ago. I pretty much agree with everything you said. I did enjoy it to a degree, but not nearly as much as others I've read. I read the sequel just because there was one. The farther I went into the story, the less interesting it was. It seemed to drag on a bit. And no, there wasn't much humor.

Denise said...

I am a HUGE SD fan, loved every book in the series. My personal thoughts are that she became a better writer with each book in the series. The last book in the series had me in tears (in a good way) from the first page.
I can understand your thoughts on the characters but one can't compare apples to oranges when it comes to DG and SD :-) Sure, there are *down* times but I haven't found one series that doesn't have a *hurry up and move on* moment for me..LOL Outlander will always be my all time favorite series with Into the Wilderness a close second.

If you manage to get to the second book you'll enjoy a trip back to Scotland for a wee bit and further in the series you'll meet a wonderful Scot by the name of Simon...just sayin :-)

Alli said...

I actually just finished this book less than a month ago and I really enjoyed it. I did find it hard to get into at first (in fact, I read about 60 pages then put it down for quite a few months), but as it sat there on my nightstand I kept wanting to go back and I was glad I did. I found myself comparing it too much to DG's writing at first which was a mistake - they are very different authors and once I leared to appreciate Donati's style and prose and let go of my DG obsession (I bring this to every book I read!) I found I enjoyed the book much more. I do agree that there was not a lot of humour, and I often found myself going "oh goodness, can't they just live in peace!" after another adventure, and I found some of the storylines not exactly plausible (but apparently time travel is?! har har), but all those being said I found myself truly drawn to the characters and really NEEDING to know what happens next! I have 2-3 books I want to read first but I will likely pick up the 2nd in the series (I understand there are quite a few books) after that and jump right back in. Not the greatest book I've ever read but I enjoyed it all the same.

Anonymous said...

Loved, loved, LOVED this and the rest of the books in the series. There are 7 books in total and it is a completed series...and by the end, you will laugh and cry and cheer with the Bonner family. We Outlandish Lassies must concede that there will NEVER be another Claire and Jamie...we will forever search and never find characters like them...but in my mind, the Bonners come close!

Anna I. said...

I listened to this from Audible. And I liked it better the second time. This is a series and I think my favorite was actually "Queen of Swords" which is set in New Orleans during the war of 1812.

Leslie said...

I actually continued on and read the entire series (there are 3 or 4 in the series). No, it wasn't as good as Outlander, but it wasn't a bad way to fill the withdrawl you get while waiting for the next Outlander book to come out :)

Karen Henry said...

Thanks, everybody, for your comments!


Linda said...

Guess what? It's OK to love other authors too. If you close yourself off as a DG fan exclusively, you will drive yourself (and your friends) nuts. DG takes way too long to produce the next volume, so in the meantime, if you don't force yourself to read someone else's worthy works, you are just cheating yourself.

Having pontificated enough on that subject, I verra much enjoyed the Wilderness books. Nathaniel drove me mad with his bad grammar, and Elizabeth made me want to shake her. As a teacher, you'd think she would have at least tried to correct his and her children's speech patterns. But they grew on me. My favorite book was the second one, which took place in Scotland and in which several of my favorite characters in the series were introduced: Luke and Jennet.

So if you have a Jamie fixation, I get it. But don't deprive yourself of dear Luke or Simon. I, along with my Outlandish Lassie girlfriends, shed read big tears at the end of the series. My twa cents worth.

Karen Henry said...


Hey, I read books by other authors all the time! Check out my Shelfari collection at the bottom of this site for some of my favorites. Just because I didn't fall in love with INTO THE WILDERNESS doesn't mean I don't appreciate well-written stories by authors other than DG.

And I have not even seen the second book. I might go looking for it some day, based on the recommendations here. Or maybe I won't. Please don't assume that my OUTLANDER-addiction means that I read *only* Diana's books, OK?

I thought this book was a reasonable addition to the Methadone List. Did I think it was great literature? No. But it's a decent enough book to help pass the time while we wait for Book 8 and SCOTTISH PRISONER.


Hev said...

At least I wasn't the only one that picked Jamie, Claire, & Ian up from the book. My mother & I argued over it for a bit. I knew I was right. The series is good, but it isn't up to Outlander par in my opinion.

Julie at Outlandish Dreaming said...

I felt pretty much the same way you did, it just didn't grab me and I found I didn't have that emotional response to the characters, I just didn't really "care" about them the same way I do with Gabaldon's. I listened to it on audio, which was fine, but I will not be continuing with the series. Maybe if I hadn't already been spoiled by the greatness of the Outlander Series I would have enjoyed this more.

Melanie said...

One more observation about the Wilderness series.....In the last book of the series called "The Endless Forest" SD includes an epilogue which explains the rest of the lives of her main characters beyond the last chapter of the book. In a way she seemed to be reminding the reader of the finality of this last book in the series...almost as though she was telling us this is it, I'm done with this group of characters, don't look for more works about them. While I enjoyed the series this way of ending it was depressing, almost made me angry as it made it difficult for the reader to remember the characters as they were in the novels.....oh well, the author has her reasons I suppose.....I for one don't want to read about the end of characters like Diana's who I have become very attached to. Just leave me with the possibilites and imaginings don't show me their obits!!!!

Merih said...

I read the whole series in the last few months, right after finishing Echo. I did like them but they do pale a bit in comparison, only because they have some similarities with the Outlander series. The subsequent books are better when the story focuses more on Hannah. She is a really well written character. There are some likable minor characters that I wish she had devoted more time to.

Linda said...

I've read the entire Wilderness series and as a whole, it was quite good as historical fiction. Queen of Swords was my favorite. I try not to make comparisons as a rule as each author has their own writing style. Even though the mention of Outlander characters was fun, it may have caused more problems for Donati than she expected. I've read that some people thought Diana wrote the series as Donati!

Anonymous said...

I am so glad I found this review. I have read all the Outlander books and of course a huge fan too. I've read all Into the Wilderness books and loved them all until the Epilogue and honestly I agree with Melanie about the Epilogue. It honestly made me angry.

I wish I had simply stopped with the last chapter and forever held fond memories in my mind of these characters I had come to love.

Anonymous said...

Somebody help me! I'm currently reading the fourth book "Fire Along the Sky" and on page 69 it says "Over the years three women had borne him eleven children, and five of those survived" - him being Nathaniel. For the life of me I can only think of 8 of his children as follows:

From Giselle - Luke(1)
From Sarah - Hannah(2), Hannah's twin brother(3), plus another male infant(4)
From Elizabeth - Lily(5), Daniel(6), Robbie(7), Gabriel(8).

Somebody PLEASE tell me where the other three fit in as it is driving me crazy!

Leeann said...

That epilogue was depressing and so unnecessary. Was a really bad way to end a good series of books. It just sucked the joy out of characters surviving horrible events only to die soon after of basic illness etc.

The Altersons said...

There were more children with Elizabeth for sure. They didn't live very long after being born. Pretty sure all three that your don't name were with E. There was somewhere where she named all of them. But I can't remember.

ciproano said...

I just stumbled across this while looking up something else and find the book comparisons interesting. I had a little trouble getting into Outlander the first time through because I found Claire to be a bit histrionic and the time-travel too much like fantasy novels. I did get back to the series and read from the start. I just enjoyed the fantasy time-travel part for what it was and also enjoyed the world history.

I also went back to Into the Wilderness and re-read all the books straight through. I found the history to be extremely interesting, especially as I've lived most of my adult life in upstate NY and have camped and hiked through many of the areas in the Adirondacks where the Bonners lived and traveled. I've been inspired to read more actual history and find that Donati did a reasonable job of using historical facts as a skeleton from which to hang her stories. Her canvas isn't as broad as Gabaldon's but I enjoyed the intimate portrayals of gentle characters (and some less gentle) from all peoples represented. Most of the main characters had long but defined story arcs that wove a consistent thread through the series, as several of the books focused on characters from different generations.

In short, my familiarity with the landscapes of the Adirondack locations and interest in the area's history gave these books a special meaning for me and resonated more deeply than Outlander. I'm just glad I don't have to choose a favorite, since Outlander was great fun and sexier!

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