This book is set in a dystopian future in the United States at a time when all the natural resources have been used up by humans. Cities are polluted, the air is almost unbreathable, and children are dying as a result.
One of these sick children is Beatrice’s five-year-old daughter Agnes.
Beatrice’s partner Glen sees a way to save Agnes. There is a solitary pocket of wilderness called the Wilderness State, a large area left to run wild. Glen sets up an experiment that will entail a group of twenty people living in this wild area to see how they survive and how they affect the environment. The family is part of this group, which is called the Community.
The Community has to follow strict rules to minimize its impact on the land: for example, how garbage—including micro-trash—should be disposed of, and how deep the pit latrines should be. The Community is supervised by rangers who check regularly to ensure that rules are followed and that the group does not stay in one place for too long.
It is fascinating to see how humans cope under these circumstances. Initially, things go more or less according to plan. But as the months and years go by, the Community loses people to accidents and mishaps. Survival is everything, and the Community does not have the luxury of mourning its dead or taking care of the badly wounded. When one of them falls down a cliff, he is left to die because going down to help would be almost impossible.
Maybe all of this is logical in the circumstances, but it is still shocking.
The central character of the book is Agnes, who grows up in the wilderness, recovering her health and adapting easily to the new circumstances. She is intelligent, watchful, strong and loyal. But when Beatrice learns about her mother’s death and leaves for the city on an impulse, Agnes sees it as a betrayal and never forgives her.
This is a complex and fairly grim book. Diane Cook does not sweeten the pill: if there is a climate catastrophe and we are thrown upon our own resources, how would we react? Placing a group of people in the middle of nowhere is like observing them in a petri dish: you get to see the power dynamics, the shifting relationships, and the tussle between cooperation and individual needs.
And how will the Community deal with the interlopers, people who have snuck into the wilderness to escape crime and pollution in the city?
We also see how the people in the group change from being nomadic hunter-gatherers to trying to set down roots. Initially, they move frequently, but after a few years in the wild, they want to stay in familiar places and build more permanent structures—in other words, set up home.
But ultimately, this is a story about a mother and daughter. It is not a warm, cosy relationship but one that is often conflictual, and a force that is always present even when Beatrice disappears for a while.
It is the bond between Beatrice and Agnes, no matter how difficult and confused, that is at the centre of this book. Their love for each other and their strength eventually gives this dystopian tale its ray of hope.