There is no plot. There is only one character, and she doesn’t have a name other than “Girl,” although she is sometimes called Lamentations Callat, Wench, or Zed. Much of the narrative reads and feels like a fever dream. And the ending is sad…so very, very sad.
It’s the early 1600s. Girl, who is about 16 or 17 years old, flees in the middle of a frigid winter night from an early colonial American settlement, probably Jamestown. Everyone is starving. People are dying of hunger and disease. She steals the boots of a boy who died of smallpox and swipes her mistress’s heavy cloak. Into a sack she packs a pewter cup, a flint, a knife, a hatchet, and two lice-infested brown coverlets. And off she goes, running as fast as she can in the hopes she can escape before they come looking for her. She knows they will come searching, and if they find her, it will be a violent end. So she must get away—fast. Because what she did is not forgivable.
Girl survives by her wits, battling nature from winter’s cold to wild beasts, battling herself and her body’s need for food, water, warmth, and rest, and battling man, including one who tries to stone her to death. Taking place over a few weeks, the novel is the story of her flight and survival through the wilderness as she tries to walk to Canada (without any real idea of where she is going), as well as numerous flashbacks to her life in England and her life in the colonial settlement. Until she was four years old, she was in an orphanage/poorhouse in England when she was purchased by a family needing a servant. The mistress treats her kindly, adopting her as a kind of pet, but the teenage son abuses her horribly. The mistress is widowed, and her second husband, a minister, takes the family to the New World against their wishes.
Deftly written in a way that makes prose seem like poetry, this is a book to be savored and reread. It is not suspenseful, it is not a page-turner, but it is captivating and almost seductive. I felt Girl’s fear, her body’s cold, her hunger, her determination, and her courage. I felt like I was out there in the dark forests with her as she trudged north, as she slowly reveals her secrets to the reader.
This novel is an inspired tribute to the power of the individual to choose a life that is different from the community, to forge a path that no one else has taken, to live a new life. Lauren Groff has written what I can only describe as a daring literary achievement.