by Annika van Leeuwen
New authors are often bombarded with advice about plot structure and character building. An often repeated piece of advice about characters is that you need to think about what your characters want and what they need – and the discrepancy between these two. This, the helpful experienced author says, is how you build an interesting character. This advice illustrates that motivation is a big part of realistic, human characters. Yet, the motivations that authors think of are not always as three-dimensional as real-life ones. For female characters, who are often defined in relation to others, the reasons for acting in certain ways tend to be centred on their love for other (male) characters. Especially when these characters are mothers, they are not always afforded personhood by their authors, instead being defined by the love they have for their children. Two prime examples of this occur in the A Song of Ice and Fire series and its TV adaptation Game of Thrones. Cersei Lannister’s actions are motivated by her love for her children, which is consistently said to be her only good quality, and Catelyn Stark’s whole character arc revolves around helping her husband and children.
In The New Wilderness by Diane Cook, the attempt to bridge the gap between mother- and personhood results in beautifully human and complex characters. The novel takes place in an unspecified future, in which pollution and overpopulation have resulted in an unliveable City. The story opens with Bea, her husband Glen, and her daughter Agnes living in the Wilderness together with ten other people who needed to escape the City. The Wilderness is a huge expanse of wild land, mountains, rivers, forests, and the Community that lives there has to adhere to a strict set of rules. Most importantly: leave no trace.
So far, this description may not suggest a particularly character-driven story, but the reason for Bea and her family to have set out on this adventurous new life is because Agnes – eight years old at the start of the novel – would not be able to live in the City any longer, due to the polluted air. Bea herself, however, was doing pretty well in the City, and had made a huge leap in her career before they left. This is not just an interesting fictional dilemma; for my mother and many women of her generation, this was a reality. When children were born, they were expected to stop working. Of course, my mother did not live like a prehistoric nomad for four years to save my life, but she did change her whole life to accommodate my brothers and me – and this was the expected way to go about this in her environment. Just as I took for granted that my mother was there to take care of me any time I got home, or was sick, Agnes in The New Wilderness takes for granted that her mother lives in the Wilderness for her. When reading the novel, this parallel stayed in the back of my mind, this uncurious assumption that my mother would just sacrifice her own career, her own happiness for me. And with that, I suppose, the blame that a younger me may have put on her for not doing so, as Agnes does later.
This one decision greatly affects Bea’s life, and throughout the novel the reader sees her struggle to be her own person apart from being a mother. The breaking point in this story is when Bea learns that her own mother has died in the City while she was travelling a great distance with the Community between two posts. She reads the letter containing the news while surrounded by the Community, with her daughter at her feet. She is crying when she
|heard a whimper and looked down. Agnes had tears in her eyes, but her whimper had been purposeful, performed. She was imitating her mother. Trying to access the feelings she saw there. ‘Nana is dead,’ she announced to Bea, quivering her lip dramatically. And this enraged Bea, as though Agnes were trying to take ownership of this pain, of this relationship. This important relationship that Bea had abandoned in order to care for her own daughter. (132, emphasis mine)|
Here, Bea’s battle of being a mother and her own person reaches a new level. Were she just an unlikable or evil woman, she may have become violent, or shouted at this child that was stealing her emotions. She would have gotten up, told Agnes to stop, and said something that she might later regret. A likable character, on the other hand, would have comforted her daughter, or perhaps hugged her. I can see the scene playing out in my head: a grieving mother/daughter pressing her own child against her to perhaps remind her that at least she still has her. The husband joining in their embrace. A family, even through the grief. Perhaps a sunset.
But The New Wilderness does not romanticize, it brings out humanity in all its roughness. And so Bea does not take Agnes in her arms, but instead she leans “toward Agnes’s face, with cold emphasis, she pointed to her own thumping chest and repeated, ‘My mother is dead. Mine’” (133, emphasis in original). Immediately after this, she gets up, and leaves the Wilderness to go back to the city, abandoning her daughter and husband. She claims her personhood, in effect showing that the grief is hers.
Bea’s claim on her own emotions is an important one, and it speaks to something that I feel we tend to forget about mothers: they are people. I have long disliked the fact that we tend to define women by their relation to others/men, and specifically that there is a value judgment attached to this process. What comes to mind here is the discussion about men respecting women. An often-heard argument is “would you treat your mother like that/would you want your daughter to be treated like that?” The issue with this argument is that it should not matter. It should not matter whether someone is your daughter or mother or wife, you should respect them for being a person. This claim to personhood is what Bea struggles with, and what eventually breaks her.
Here, the novel gives Bea a break. We do not find out much about the year she spends in the City, because we follow Agnes as she attempts to deal with her abandonment. Part four of the book, which starts after Bea runs away, is called “The Ballad of Agnes”, where the first part was called “The Ballad of Beatrice”. This part opens with Agnes waking up next to a prairie dog “with a question on its face”, her own answer to this question being “I’m Agnes. And yes, I belong here” (139). This is in stark contrast to her mother, whose narrative showed that she does not belong in the Wilderness. Without Bea around, Agnes gets the opportunity to be a person, a leader, instead of a daughter. At the same time, presumably, Bea gets the opportunity to be a person as well, away from her daughter, undefined by her.
Lollipops are metaphorically connected to this belonging vs. not belonging, as well as to the sacrificial element of motherhood. They first appear in part one of the novel, when Bea speaks with Ranger Bob. The rangers are the police in the Wilderness, and they keep track of where the community is and what happens with it; Ranger Bob is an old friend of Bea’s, who she’s known for as long as she has lived in the Wilderness. After Bea finishes reporting on the gains and losses, Bob gives her a “vibrant green lollipop. ‘Give this to your darling girl,’ he said. ‘I know how much she loves them’” (39). He gives Bea one for herself as well. A page later, “Bea returned to her cave and chomped through both lollipops. The last thing Agnes needed was to remember what sugar was” (40).
Bea almost defensively frames her action as one meant to protect Agnes. Later, however, we find out that Ranger Bob has given her quite a few green lollipops before, and that Agnes never received one. Another relevant titbit of information here is that green lollipops were Bea’s favourites. Bea’s decision to “chomp” through both of the lollipops and not share them, either with Agnes or with her husband Glen, is likely motivated by her love for lollipops instead of her love for Agnes. When these bits of information were revealed, Bea’s personhood and self-prioritisation (which you could also call selfishness, but I’m not sure if I want to) made me feel a certain second-hand shame, like she shouldn’t have eaten the lollipops. As if she had the obligation of sharing something she loved, something she did not have access to most of the time and did not know when or whether she would be able to have again. As if it was not enough that she had turned her life completely upside down for her daughter’s health, no, she should have given her one of the lollipops as well.
Mothers are hardly ever allowed to just be people. We see it all around us, such as when Chrissy Teigen was harshly berated online for going out to a restaurant ‘only’ two weeks after giving birth (while her husband John Legend was not expected to remain at home with his new-born), or when the women in the British Royal family are expected to stand on the balcony and wave, holding their babies only mere hours after having given birth. In literature, too, mothers are hardly ever depicted as real people whose motivations and feelings matter, but rather as nagging or overbearing caregivers, depending on the perspective of the child. However, it does appear small steps are being made towards allowing mothers to be more than just their role: for example, the first chapters of Ali Smith’s Summer stick to the perspective of the annoyed child, whereas later parts of the book provide mother Grace with her own story. Benardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other features full chapters from the perspective of different mothers, yet still shows (most of) these mothers as family-focused and child-oriented; it is hopeful, though, that a mother-character like Amma, who is clearly living a full and fulfilling life, is put at the centre of that story. With Summer’s Grace, Girl, Woman, Other’s Amma, and The New Wilderness’ Bea, it seems mothers in recent literature are getting the chance to exist as people. The New Wilderness has flaws. It is not a perfect book, or even a perfect representation of motherhood. However, the book at the very least allows Bea to be a full-fledged person; sometimes a mother also needs a lollipop.
Annika van Leeuwen is the head of RevUU’s PR and Marketing team. She’s currently enrolled as a Master student in literature at Utrecht University. When reading, she focuses on how books deal with themes such as gender, race, and sexuality. She will not read only Literature, but she will deal with any book as if it’s literature. As a reader, she’s mostly interested in fantasy books, although she also thoroughly enjoys some Jane Austen.
Photo by Annika van Leeuwen
Cook, Diane. The New Wilderness. OneWorld, 2020.
Evaristo, Bernaderdine. Girl, Woman, Other. Penguin Books, 2020.
Martin, George R. R. A Game of Thrones. Voyager, 1996.
Smith, Ali. Summer. Hamish Hamilton, 2020.