Daughters of the Wild
Natalka Burian

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.

This book was weird. I don’t use that word lightly. I also, in this case, don’t mean it in a good way. I gave the book three stars upon finishing it because I liked the ending, but, having just trashed it below, I’ve decided to kick it back down to two stars, which is what I was going to give it before the ending got to me.

Set at the end of the 90s, Daughters of the Wild is the story of six more or less orphaned kids raised in rural West Virginia by Analetta (“Letta”) and Silvanus (“Sil”), their abusive foster parents. All of them spend their lives tending the Vine of Heaven, a sentient plant with magical powers, which – when cooked a certain way – produces a powerful, lucrative drug. The kids are cheap labor, but Letta and Sil don’t have it easy either: they report to Amberly Joseph (“Mother Joseph”), Letta’s relative, the matriarch of a large clan that produces the Vine drug and carries out various dirty jobs around town. Their uneasy relationship with Mother Joseph has been badly strained since their eldest foster daughter Joanie was accused of murdering her husband Josiah, who also happened to be Mother Joseph’s only son, and they’ve been walking on eggshells ever since Joanie returned from the Josephs’ compound. Things seem bad enough as they are, but they abruptly take a turn for the worse when Joanie’s newborn son is kidnapped, and a ransom demanded.

Joanie, who has learned more about the Vine and its ways than anyone wanted or anticipated, turns to it for help in bringing her son back. This is a power only available to girls, however, and Cello, the second eldest foster child after Joanie, starts scrounging for money in every way he can think of. During the course of his scroungings he bumps into Ben, a local college student, who reluctantly lets him in on his side hustle, and they quickly fall in love. Meanwhile Letta and Sil’s relationship with the Josephs continues to deteriorate, but, though they try to repair it, their efforts are mooted when Joanie uses the Vine to murder Mother Joseph on a day when nobody is watching her closely enough. Things unravel quickly from there: Letta takes advantage of the confusion and seizes control of the Joseph clan; Cello stands up to Sil, ending his dominion over the foster children once and for all; and Sabina, one of the older foster daughters, confesses that she is the kidnapper, and that she left the baby in a nearby Baptist church in the hopes that he would have a chance at a decent life. One can see her point: the foster kids mostly seem to be literate, but barely, and none of them has seen the inside of a schoolroom.

The final chapter is the best part of the book. A year after Mother Joseph’s death, Joanie and her son have moved out of the trailer in which the foster kids were raised and into a little house of their own, along with the younger foster kids, who are thriving under Joanie and Sabina’s care and have even started to go to school. Joanie receives a monthly stipend from Letta and Sil as payment for tending the Vine, which has bonded with her and won’t accept any work performed by anyone else. Cello meanwhile has started a relationship with Ben and is studying for the GRE, and Marcela (another foster sister) is halfway through beauty school. The story ends with all of the cozy fall vibes, plus one final act of worship to burn whatever is left of Mother Joseph’s influence out of the Vine.

The main trouble I had was that, despite the ending chapter, this book was not fun. The vast majority of the characters were unpleasant at best. The story made me feel somehow unclean. I have read other reviews just to make sure I’m not crazy, and a lot of them say that the book made them feel dirty, which is exactly how I feel, though I can’t really articulate why. Part of my discomfort might be because the entire cast – except, of course, the ones who have been to college – is so stereotyped that the book borders on cliché. They literally fit every popular image of rural American townsfolk: unwashed, uneducated, violent, superstitious, homophobic, profane. The homophobia is less overt, but it is there, and it does rather make me wonder how a boy raised in such an environment could so readily accept a sexuality so thoroughly frowned upon by his community. Though he spends 80% of the book pining after Joanie and wishing he could be the adoptive father of her child, Cello embraces his attraction to Ben almost as soon as he notices it and drops his quiet courtship of Joanie, which wasn’t working anyway. I’m glad he’s at least confident enough not to shrink away from his sexuality because through most of the book he’s kind of a doormat, but it seems a bit odd.

The other issue is that the Vine giveth and the Vine taketh away, but it’s not clear why Joanie is so naturally adept in exploiting its powers, or even what exactly those powers are. It came from space and it demands blood, which is why only girls are allowed to enact the rituals that either keep it alive or keep it happy and potent or whatever (that’s not really clear either), but its powers and limits are only vaguely defined. And, after all the babbling the cover blurb did about Joanie’s “perilous journey into the wild” to “bring her son home,” that’s not actually what happened. She didn’t have to go out into the wild and use the Vine to murder Mother Joseph. She didn’t have to hitchhike to Antietam in a stranger’s car and then piss on his lap just because the Vine told her he would like it if she did that. (The Vine apparently pays its debts.) Literally all she had to do was get Cello to beat up Sil, which was the precipitating event in Sabina’s confession. You’d really think the Vine would’ve told her that.

Ultimately, I was expecting a story about witchcraft and women’s empowerment, but, though the women are in charge and the men are mostly drones, in the end it’s really just a story about a bunch of drug-brewing rednecks who turned a plant into a god. I say “mostly” because half of the story is given over to Cello, who is a narrating character even though nobody could accuse him of being interesting. I don’t really see why we needed his perspective, and at this point I honestly think he was just there to pad the book out to the length of a novel rather than a novella. I also don’t see why he needed to be in love with Joanie. Is sibling love – even if only between foster siblings – not a convincing enough motive for the things he does to try to protect Joanie and her baby? Did he have to have an unrequited crush on her? Or was it less about giving him a solid motive and more about giving him a healthy relationship in place of a toxic one?

Overall this book really did not do it for me. There were so many things that were either unclear or unnecessary. The cover blurb bills it as The Bell Jar set in rural Appalachia, but, having just reread The Bell Jar, I could not disagree more. This is not a daring foray into the mental illnesses the characters don’t have. It’s less about mental health and more about physical survival, and hanging on long enough to find something better. It’s about a family that fractures and pulls apart and somehow still manages to cling together, and the lengths to which its members will go to survive. It’s about an alien plant that crash-lands on Earth and immediately sucks the nearest humans into its orbit, training them over generations to see to its every need while imbuing them with enough mysticism to keep them interested. It tries to do so many things, but it doesn’t manage to get any of them quite right. It’s violent, dramatic, ambitious. It’s just not good.