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on October 8, 2000
Kim Barnes seems to be making a career of writing memoirs -- two before she's turned forty. The first, "In the Wilderness" is about her growing up in the logging camps and logging towns of northern Idaho in the 60's and 70's. It is about times and places in Idaho I thought I knew fairly well, but Barnes' eyes have seen a different country. The writing is mostly brillant -- clear and poetic -- and the content touches plenty of contemporary bases: marriage, parenting, feminism, religion and environmentalism. Barnes' parents were uprooted from Oklahoma in the 50's and migrated to Idaho to join relatives who were living a communal existence as gippo loggers on the Clearwater River. Eden for Kim Barnes was a circle of shacks, sans plumbing or utitlities, on US Forest Service land beside Orofino Creek. There she and her extended family literally lived off the land, bidding on small timber sales, growing vegetables, picking berries, fishing, and hunting game. Anachronisitic even by Idaho standards, the constituent family units of the clan had, by 1966, dispersed to better-paying jobs and indoor plumbing in the land west of Eden. Barnes' father moved his family only fifteen miles to Pierce (population 500) and continued to work as a logger. He bears a more than passing resemblance to the central character in Kesey's "Sometime a Great Notion -- strong and rigid in mind and body. The family became deeply involved with the local Pentecostal church and its strange minister. At one point, after having a vision of a demon, her father retreats to their root cellar to fast and meditate for forty days. The next move is to "big city" Lewiston where Kim enters junior high and adolescent revolt almost simultaneously. Unable to control her, her parents send her stay with the Pentecostal minister and his family who are living near Spokane. Although the experience is traumatic, Kim returns reformed and repentant to enter high school. She is an honor student and becomes a devout member of an Assembly of God church where she speaks in tongues. The next 20+ years of Barnes' life are covered in a series of disconnected vignettes and flashbacks. (perhaps she was already planning the next memoir) It is the least satisfactory part of the book. She graduates from high school, but continues to clash with her father. She works at a variety of jobs, starts taking college classes, marries her english professor and has two children. She comes to see Dworshak dam as the work of the devil. Although she is never really reconciled with her father, she "strives not to see him as a villan and her mother as a victim". "In the Wilderness" may sound bizarre in synopsis, but its effect is serious. Barnes recreates the world she saw as a child and an adolescent with riviting simplicity. One doesn't have to accept her notion that a paradise on the Clearwater was lost between 1966 and 1996 to be moved by her sense of loss. We all struggle with family dynamics that she shows acted out in larger-than-life fashion by the generations of the Barnes family.
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on May 10, 2000
Reaching into her family's history, narrating how her mother and father came to move to Pierce, ID, Kim Barnes begins a most tender, generous, and honest memoir. In part, it's a story about Clearwater County, Idaho in the late 1950's and on into the 1960's. It is as if the world of beat poetry, the space program, and campus unrest hardly existed. In the wilderness near Pierce, Idaho, life still has a settlement feel.
I can attest to the accuracy of Barnes' portrayal. My mother taught school in nearby Weippe, Idaho in the early 1950's and her family still lives in Clearwater County seat, Orofino. We used to take drives up to Weippe, Pierce, and Headquarters and these towns seemed both barely settled and unsettled. It didn't seem anyone was going to stay long.
For me, the most compelling dimension of Barnes' memoir was her family's Pentecostal Christian worship and practice. Told with probing compassion, Barnes lyrically describes how the cartography of her mind as a girl was drawn by the fundamentalism and moral restrictions of Pentecostalism.
As this exploration deepened, and as Barnes describes her family moving to Lewiston, ID and herself becoming a teenager, my respect for Barnes blossomed. Given Barnes' rebellion against Pentecostalism, she easily could have demeaned her parents' Pentecostal practice. But, she does just the opposite. Yes, she chronicles her confusion, the tug-of-war in her soul as she rejects, accepts, and rejects again the comforts and constraints of this kind of church, but she also explores her respect for her parents, how much she is indebted to them for her openness to the transcendent (especially in nature), to the mysterious in life. For not turning her memoir into a reactionary bashing of Christian fundamentalism and for candidly exploring how she could leave home, but home never left her, I deeply admire Kim Barnes. For the beauty of her language, I praise her. I could not put this book down. Nor could I stop reading this book's sequel, Hungry for the World, which I've also reveiwed.
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on December 29, 1997
That Kim Barnes is a poet is clear from her prose: the sensory details of "In the Wilderness" transport the reader not just to Central Idaho in the 1960s and 70s, but inside the skin of a girl living there.
The book functions on several levels. It elaborates the beauty and danger of living in the wilderness. It documents the erosion of that wilderness, from the perspective of someone who originated there. It investigates the comfort and terror fundamentalist Christian theology can inspire. And it tells the story of girl finding her place within and without her family.
I haven't read Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books in more than 20 years, but the first part of "In the Wilderness" brought back the sense of adventure I felt reading them as a child. "In the Wilderness", however, is written for adults. The last part of the book includes reflection on the significance of events in Barnes' childhood and the roles those events played in making her the woman she's become.
Like Annie Dillard, Barnes interweaves religion and nature. If you enjoyed "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" you'll find something to like in this book--just don't expect "An American Childhood."
"In the Wilderness" has a lot to say about nature, family, and religion, but not at the expense of telling a story. I was surprised at some of the turns the story took because Barnes is careful to present each part of the story from the age perspective appropriate for who she was at that point in the narrative. I read the whole thing in less than two days.
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on May 18, 2001
The reviewer from Lewiston, Idaho, Kim Barnes' home town, wants to suggest that there are things in IN THE WILDERNESS that didn't happen. What I can't figure out is how anyone could know that. The book is a memoir. It is told from the point of view of the writer, and Barnes early on tells us that she understands the faultiness of memory. How did this person manage to get inside the author's head?
Answer: she/he didn't. Read the book and see. This is a book that bends over backwards to be fair and honest and true. The Lewiston reviewer's motives have more to do with something else--spite, maybe, or jealousy, who knows? IN THE WILDERNESS is a book that changes readers' lives. It's filled with the kind of grace we should all be envious of. It never, ever means to hurt, but to speak clearly and beautifully and, most of all, honestly. The same cannot be said of many books, nor of some reviews.
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on March 10, 2001
I read this book as I hiked through the Sierras, and the effect was sublime. Barnes is a master story teller and wordsmith. The book plops the reader into the hardscrabble life of a girl growing up in logging camps amid colorful cast of characters. Her descriptions of nature - fish "fatter than a baby's leg" - and carefully plucked words are a joy to read. I can't believe no one else has reviewed this book! It soars above the current crop of mangy memoirs that fill books with words, but fail to get to the soul of the matter.
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on December 30, 1998
I give "In The Wilderness" 5 stars. Kim's description of the beauty of Northern Idaho is right on. Once you connect with the beauty of the people of the remote areas there is no other place. Her portrayal of being raised in a non-forgiving religion does test ones faith. When I read the "lesson of silence" I almost cried, many of us know this lesson well. This is a great read; one I will read over and over again.
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on November 3, 2000
Kim Barnes weaves a rich coming-of-age tale in a complex setting. Among the backdrop of harsh economic times, strict religious restraints and emotional repression, a girl struggles to find her way and some meaning in life. Barnes tell her story in a richly compelling manner, standing back from her life almost as an objective observer. I learned much from this book about an era and way of life that I hadn't known before.
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on January 10, 2000
Loved the book--not only because I graduated from the same high school two years later and knew Les Barnes, but because it so clearly captured the way Lewiston was in the 1970's: the choices that could be made and the cliques. It was so captivating that I couldn't put it down because my husband kept picking it up and reading it while I was trying to AND because it was such a great read!
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on November 6, 2001
This book was heart-warming and enjoyable. I sent it to all my sisters. Thank-you to the author.
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on January 8, 2003
Incredibly moving and beautifully written.One of the best books I've read recently.
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