Life in the Woods

Reviewed By

Peter Rock’s darkly evocative fifth novel follows a father and daughter’s underground existence in a city park.

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote about his urge to grab and devour a live woodchuck so he could taste the animal’s “wildness.” It’s an admission that seems to say more, specifically, about Thoreau himself than it does, generally, about man’s relationship to nature—and as such, it’s enthralling. Peter Rock’s My Abandonment, written in the voice of a young girl living secretly in a forest, is at its best in similar moments.

When we meet Caroline, she’s living with her Thoreau- and Emerson-quoting father in a secret hideaway in Portland’s Forest Park. She learns about the outside world by reading a partial set of encyclopedias, and every once in a while, she and her father—actually, he’s called “Father,” with a capital F—venture to Safeway for a grocery run. But this existence is threatened when they’re discovered by city authorities, forcing them to conform to mainstream society or flee back under the forest’s dark cover. It doesn’t take them long to choose the latter option, and when they do, the novel enters its darkest and most compelling place.

One gets the sense that Rock, a Portland resident who has written four novels before this, must himself have spent many hours wandering Forest Park with his notebook in hand—he renders Caroline’s world with great authority and rich detail. Though the story is based on true events, it quickly becomes Caroline’s own. In her words, the leaves atop trees “are like lace,” and half-fallen trees “groan” in the wind. At times, Caroline’s observations hint at the creepy turn her story will take: “Sometimes a stone will roll up a hill,” she notices early on. “Or a stone will leap in the air and rap against another stone or a tree like he is angry at them. I have seen this happen.”

Peter Rock

Peter Rock

Rock’s decision to tell the story in the voice of a thirteen-year-old presents certain difficulties, though, especially early in the novel. He goes so far as to give the story’s grammar over to her: “Once a person knows how to talk they know how unless they have a sore throat but that can’t last forever and even then you can whisper.” And this: “Our green Coleman stove and our kettle and our pots and pans and everything is gone just like I said they would be taken.” After reading enough of these, one finds oneself wishing that Rock would step in to reclaim just a little authorial control from precocious Caroline’s hands.

Caroline’s naiveté can also feel distancing to an adult reader. When she ventures into Portland proper and sees that a theater is playing the movie The Blair Witch Project, she asks Father, “Is that about witches?” After she witnesses a young couple getting naked in the woods, she tells Father that they must have been trying “to see what their bodies looked like.”

But as the story grows darker and more complicated, so does its protagonist. After being found out by city officials, Caroline and Father are given a place to live—a modest farmhouse, near which Father can work and Caroline can attend school. But Father, a war veteran, believes their moves are being tracked by an elusive “them.” He tells Caroline to pack her belongings, and the two prepare to go into hiding again.

To say what unravels next would spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that Caroline’s perception of danger in her midst, early in the novel (“I have seen a fallen tree slowly right itself and its dead branches will sprout leaves”), begins to make quite a bit more sense, from a psychological standpoint. As Father drags daughter along on his rambling flight from civilization, My Abandonment turns into a novel not about the relationship between man and nature, but about that between a girl and her father—and it’s there that Rock’s story is at its scariest and most evocative.

Vauhini Vara is studying fiction at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, on leave from her day job as a technology reporter at The Wall Street Journal. Her fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Black Warrior Review, and Epoch. More from this author →