We're so excited to announce Diane Cook's The New Wilderness as BuzzFeed Book Club's September selection. Cook's debut novel reveals a too-familiar version of our world, divided into generic spaces: the City, the Manufacturing Zone, the Wilderness State. Bea's 5-year-old daughter, Agnes, is slowly dying from the City's heavily polluted air — so she volunteers to move to the Wilderness as part of a study to see how humans interact with nature. But survival is hard in the wilderness, too, and what begins as a group of 20 dwindles over the years. It’s a damning piece of horror cli-fi, but it’s also a gripping and profound examination of motherhood and sacrifice. Get your copy, and sign up to read along with us next month.
River 9 moved fast and swelled against its banks, and to the Community it looked like a wholly different river from the one they were familiar with. So different that they had consulted the map again, trying to match the symbols with what was now there and what their memory insisted ought to be there. They had crossed the river many times since they first arrived in the Wilderness State. From their encounters with it elsewhere, they had even considered it a lazy river, the way it turned tightly back and forth through rocks and dirt from the foothills down across the sagebrush plain. They had a usual crossing spot that they considered safe, or as safe as a river crossing could be. But it looked as though a storm had altered the bank and submerged the patch of island where they used to regroup before attempting the far bank. It was a very helpful little island. But it was gone now and they could no longer be sure where that fording spot was. Perhaps the same storm that had kept them on the other side of the mountains since last summer had also remade this river.
They lowered themselves and then the children down a small ledge to the almost nonexistent bank where greens grew, a color found almost exclusively next to rivers. The grasses, mosses, the striving trees, so thin they could be snapped between two fingers, their new spring leaves quivers of creamy green. They handed down their bedding rolls, the pouches of smoked meat, jerky, pemmican, the harvested pine nuts, precious acorns, wild rice, einkorn, a handful of wild onions, the disassembled smoking tent, their personal satchels, the hunting bows and arrows, the bag of hollowed wooden meal bowls and the chips of wood and stone they used as utensils, the precious box of precious knives, the Book Bag, the Cast Iron, the Manual, and the bags of their garbage they carried with them to be weighed and disposed of by the Rangers at Post.
In the water, a loose log, stripped naked of its bark and limbs, bobbed and rolled past even though the nearby landscape was treeless. The log must have traveled from the foothills, the unusual torrent of water ushering it through. On a lazier river, or even a lazier part of this river, a log might have gathered farther upstream in an eddy or been nudged onto a bank. Here, it rolled in the rapids. Rapids they’d never even noticed in previous crossings, when the water was low and any whitewater was just a skimming thin hat the river rocks wore. They watched another log vault head over tail, after which Caroline took her first tentative step out into the water.
Caroline was their river-crossing scout. She was the most surefooted. Had the lowest center of gravity. Her toes could grip like fingers. Beautiful toes wasted for years crammed into shoes in the City. She had learned the most about how water behaved. She was good at making sense of things that seemed erratic.
“Okay,” Caroline yelled over the rumble, her feet firm in the first foot of water, testing its pull, deciding whether to continue. “Rope.”
Carl and Juan handed her one end of the rope, which she secured around herself and they looped once around each of their waists, Carl behind Juan, and then held the rope in front of them. The children and the other adults stood as far back as they could.
They had already tried to ford two other spots, but Caroline, either feet out from the bank or waist deep in water, returned to the shore each time. “It’s too deep,” or “It’s too fast,” or “See that lip? There’s a pock somewhere under the water that will take us down.”
On this, the third spot, Caroline waded out halfway. From the bank, things looked promising. She paused, her head cocked slightly, like a coyote listening for the calls of the Wilderness — friend or foe, friend or foe. Her hands hovered over the whitewater, and it broke around her body and came together again behind her. Caroline turned her head toward them, her shoulders following, a hand turned palm up, about to signal something. She opened her mouth to speak just as the tip of a log surfaced where she stood, and with a terrible thwack and splash, Caroline was gone.
She opened her mouth to speak just as the tip of a log surfaced where she stood, and with a terrible thwack and splash, Caroline was gone.
Then the river, like an awakened bear, yanked the rope and Juan went down too. He tried to dig his heels in. He bellowed as the rope wrung his waist. Carl tried to pull on his rope section, not to help Juan but to slacken the rope to avoid the excruciating thing that was happening to Juan.
Bea stood back with the others, her hands crimped on Agnes’s shoulders. She thought about how, long ago, they always had someone stand by the rope holders with a knife to cut the rope in case something like this happened. But nothing like this ever happened, and Carl and Juan decided they were strong enough for a catastrophe like this. Besides, no one really wanted to be the one to cut the rope anyway. Still, at each river, they would have a lengthy discussion about whether to require a rope cutter or not. When they inevitably decided they needed one, no one would volunteer, so they would have to draw for it and the person who lost would shit themselves the whole time. And when nothing ever went wrong, they begrudged all that worry and work for nothing. So finally, they had decided, not that long ago, in fact, to stop mandating there be a rope cutter.
Clearly that had been the wrong decision.
In a move, Bea grabbed Carl’s personal knife from his belt, lunged, and cut the rope in front of Juan, releasing him to the bank, where he crumpled and howled in relief. Carl, cursing, catapulted back into the others, and then everyone was tumbled over and tangled in weeds. Caroline, presumably still on the rope and most certainly dead, rushed downriver. Carl clambered to his feet.
“Why did you do that?” he screamed.
“I had to,” Bea said, replacing his knife in the holder tied to his belt.
“But I had it. I fucking had it.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“Yes, I did.”
“No, you didn’t.”
Carl sputtered, “But it was our best rope.”
“We have others.”
“Not like that one. It was our river rope!”
“We can get another one.”
“Where?” Carl cried. He grabbed his hair in theatrical frustration, looking around at the empty Wilderness. But the feeling was real. He seethed.
Bea didn’t answer. Maybe she could talk a Ranger into giving them something as good, as long and thick. But she wasn’t going to promise that. She noted that while no one had sided with Carl, no one had defended her either. Everyone had busied themselves with some small task — inspecting their pouches, picking something out of another’s hair, eating an ant — until the moment passed. Except Agnes, who watched with unnerving neutrality.
Bea helped Juan to his feet, and Dr. Harold hurried forward to put a salve on the rope cuts around Juan’s waist and hands. It wouldn’t do much. None of Dr. Harold’s salves did much.
Debra and Val ran along the bank to see if Caroline resurfaced. She had, a few hundred feet downriver, her hair tangled in the branches of another log, her face submerged, her body limp. Her body and the log were snagged on something for a moment, and then were freed, speeding again down the river. There was no way to retrieve the rope. And not much to do for Caroline.
They took a moment to regroup, drink water, pass a pouch of jerky. Debra said a nice thing about Caroline and how being their river scout had been essential to their survival here and that she would be missed. “She taught me so much about water,” Debra said, looking quite shook. She and Caroline had been close. Bea looked around at the faces of the group, working their feelings out. Personally, Bea thought Caroline had been aloof, though she kept that feeling to herself. She chewed on a knuckle impatiently while she waited for the ritualized silent moment to end.
After all that, they argued about Caroline’s last intention. She’d turned and opened her mouth to tell them something about the crossing. But tell them what? Had her hand begun to signal a thumbs-up or thumbs-down before the log smacked her? What had her facial expression been before she’d grimaced in painful surprise? In the end they decided the spot was still the most promising place to cross, despite Caroline’s demise. Juan took over as the river scout and ventured in without a rope. Close to the middle, he turned and gave a thumbs-up. Single file they carefully shuffled out, children clinging to the backs of adults. It turned out to be quite a good spot to cross, and if it hadn’t been for that log, they all would have gotten to the opposite bank easily. Poor Caroline. She had bad luck, Bea decided.
With the children across, the adults formed a chain over the river and passed the heavy and cumbersome items across, the Manual, the Cast Iron, the Book Bag, the garbage, the bedding, the disassembled smoker, the food pouches, the wooden bowls and slabs of utensils, then all the individual packs, one item after the other, bank to bank. And once they’d hoisted and tied and strapped back on all their gear, they started walking again. The sun dried them instantly. They spit out the silty earth kicked up by their feet. Their skin became dusted and slippery with it. Covering one nostril, they rocketed snot out their noses into the dust and trudged through the sagebrush plain that unfurled around them like a sea. ●
THE NEW WILDERNESS by Diane Cook. Harper Books. Copyright 2020 © by Diane Cook. Reprinted by permission.
Diane Cook is the author of the novel The New Wilderness, which was longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, and the story collection, Man v. Nature, which was a finalist for the Guardian First Book Award, the Believer Book Award, the Pen/Hemingway Award, and the Los Angeles Times Award for First Fiction. Her writing has appeared in Harper’s, Tin House, Granta, and other publications, and her stories have been included in the anthologies Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories. She is a former producer for the radio program This American Life, and was the recipient of a 2016 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband, daughter, and son.