Mystery and Wilderness in Fiction

By Karen Wills

My husband and I made up a personal list of criteria for good fiction. One of our essentials is mystery. By that we don’t mean crime solving. We mean the lure of what hovers just beyond the obvious. It’s what makes us tell our book club or other friends to read it so we can talk about it.

In literature it’s sometimes found in complex characters or in nature. I used the wilderness as setting that is almost a character in my historical novel, River with No Bridge. For me, books set in the wilderness often have mystery. There’s richness to that.

In Eowyn Ivey’s historical novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, to the bright edgea husband is one of the first to head an expedition to explore Alaska Territory’s Wolverine River Valley while his pregnant wife waits at Fort Vancouver for his return. In a letter to her he muses, “I suppose the wilderness does have its draw. She always keeps a part of herself a mystery.” Later he says, “It is a grand, inscrutable wildness. Never are the people here allowed to forget that each of us is alive only by a small thread.”

For authors and artists conveying the wilderness while honoring its mystery is challenging. In her novel about the artist Emily Carr, the forrest loverthe late Susan Vreeland wrote, “She looked back at the forest—more dense and tangled and full of mystery than the forested part of Beacon Hill Park at home. How could she ever paint it? No art school taught how to paint such immense, paralyzing magnificence.”

And yet, some of us keep writing about, or painting, those precious wild places that still exist. How long wilderness has existed. We marvel at the geology of places like Glacier National Park and find an awed comfort in astronomy. Poet Robinson Jeffers wrote these lines,

The stars shine in the sky like the spray of a wave

Rushing to meet no shore, and the great music

Blares on forever…

Perhaps, the meaning of wilderness is that wild beauty creates its own mystery.

river with no bridge


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