The Wild Inside
By Jamey Bradbury. William Morrow, 2018. 290 pages. $25.99.
Imagine you have the power to tap into an animal's mind and know exactly what it's experiencing. Imagine that you can do the same with other people, to know their thoughts and sometimes their memories as well as your own. Imagine that you can only do this when you perform a certain vampirish act. And that you can't tell anyone about your strange power.
That is the premise for this intriguing debut novel by Anchorage resident Jamey Bradbury. Her protagonist, a 17-year-old girl named Tracy, lives in a remote area of Interior Alaska and races sled dogs, like her father. She also spends a lot of time in the woods — hunting, trapping, running and mourning her mother, who was hit and killed by a car on their rural road. After being expelled from school for fighting, Tracy is confined to the homestead by her father and forbidden to train her dogs.
When, in the first pages, a strange man, "tall as a tree and blotting out the rest of the woods," barrels into her and knocks her unconscious, the questions begin. Who is he? What happened? What about her knife? Why doesn't she tell her father about this scary encounter?
The next day, the stranger is back, bleeding from a puncture wound.
And then, the second stranger appears — Jesse, a young man about Tracy's age. Father and daughter can use Jesse's help with the dogs and other projects. Caught in a lie, Jesse appears to be hiding his own secrets.
Tracy, as narrator, is a bright young woman who sees and thinks about things with a keen intelligence and who reads — in particular an adventure book that plays a significant role in the story. Largely a homeschooler, she is not uneducated, so it's a mystery why the author chose to have her narrate the story with poor grammar and unconventional punctuation. Both get in the way of clarity as a reader stumbles through what is otherwise beautifully descriptive prose. The style is not even consistent within its own rules.
"Back then, there wasn't no clinic in the village, so the community health aide come out to our place once a month."
"I felt a wildness rise inside me. An urge to run fast as I could, till my head emptied out and my skin stopped buzzing and I could focus long enough to set a snare and wait for a critter to come along, and then I could leave myself completely for a time, my eyes and ears not my own, they would belong to a marten or a squirrel."
The mystery-thriller aspects of this novel drive it forward, but readers will also appreciate the veracity of its Alaska setting and the substance of dog racing life. When Tracy eventually begins training for both the Junior Iditarod and the adult race — her birthday allows her to compete in both — Bradbury skillfully interweaves aspects of dog training and racing into the larger plot.
"When you're a musher, particularly if you are getting ready for the big race, there's barely a minute that goes by December, January, February, you aren't thinking about dogs. . . . It takes days to pack the nineteen hundred pounds of food and gear that'll be dropped at the checkpoints by the trail committee, and you triple-check every drop bag to make sure it has the right number of replacement booties and emergency tools, and still you wake in the middle of the night, certain you've forgotten something important…"
What could go wrong? Quite a bit, as it turns out, some of it gruesomely shocking.
What might be right? The way a family grieves after a profound loss, the acceptance of Jesse's secret, the kindness of others, the sanctity of wild places, hard work, love of all kinds. Even amidst violence, a certain peace will be found.
Bradbury, who has an M.F.A. degree from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro and has written for this newspaper, has also served in the Peace Corps and worked for two years as an assistant to the novelist John Irving. Irving has praised "The Wild Inside" as "an unusual love story and a creepy horror novel—think of the Bronte sisters and Stephen King." It is all that—as well as a commentary on the lines we draw between wildness and civilization, between animal and human. Jamey Bradbury knows how to deliver an original and compelling story that mixes genres and develops characters in ways that should appeal to a range of readers. Let's hope "The Wild Inside" is only the first of more to come.