I wanted to like this one more than I did. A remote society set away in the woods, miles behind civilization, with a missing persons narrative, count me in. Sadly, this one did not live up to my expectations. A History of Wild Places reviews have compared it to M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, so I expected some aspects of magical realism. I found this one was more of a slow paced mystery, more than anything.
Travis Wren is hired to find Maggie St. James, a children's author who went missing years ago. He follows her trail to a remote community in the woods called "Pastoral" and just like Maggie, he disappears.
Year's later, Theo, a member of the Pastoral community, finds Travis' journal and other artifacts that make him question his community and want to discover what became of Travis and Maggie.
A History of Wild Places has quite a few themes, but I think it had too much going on. There is a fairy tale aspect as Maggie St. James is a children's book writer and chapters alternate between character perspectives and excerpts from her dark fairy tale-esque books. Her stories have an aspect of the deep dark woods, that play into the Pastoral commune.
There is also the cult/secluded community theme, which is what attracted me to this book. While that is a main theme of the book and the leader of Pastoral has some red flags, part of me wanted so much more. Pastoral's leader, Levi, has everyone in the community convinced that if they go outside the boundaries of their wooded area, they will become infected with a disease called "the rot," which will ultimately kill them and infect the rest. By using this narrative, Levi manipulates the community into seclusion. This, coupled with Theo's discovery of an "outsider's" journal, makes him question everything.
Another bone I have to pick is the M. Night Shyamalan comparison and elements of magical realism. Other than the fact that the Pastoral community is secluded from civilization and afraid of the trees because they believe they carry disease, I felt like the comparison was misleading. When I think of M. Night Shyamalan, I think of twisty stories that completely blow your mind. (In my opinion, the ending of this book really feel flat.) Additionally, there is a small aspect of magical realism in the storyline, but it quickly fizzles about 1/3 into the book. This storyline could have been SO much better than it was.
This one fell flat for me. I wanted more. It felt spread thin with the multiple plot themes. We've got cults, we've got fairy tales, we've got being scared of the deep dark woods, we've got questioning your reality. It was too much, while also not enough. I will say, the writing is very atmospheric and lyrical. There is no doubt that Shea Ernshaw has talent. I won't shut the door on this author for her future novels, but A History of Wild Places won't be added to my favorite books of 2022 list.
3 - 3.5 stars
"It was a tale that grew and became something different each time - as stories tend to do."