Novel, mystery, thriller tinged with a touch of horror: The Wild Inside is all of these. In her first book, Jamey Bradbury carefully balances genres to craft an intriguing drama set against the backdrop of the Iditarod (an annual long-distance sled dog race run in early March from Anchorage to Nome, entirely within Alaska) and the Alaskan wilderness. The bleak Alaskan tundra, and the subtle hints at the werewolf tradition in this final stop in the USA makes an interesting counterpoint to the bleak Siberian wastelands and folklore of my arrival in Russia back in 2010 with Victor Pelevin’s, Sacred Book of the Werewolf. Whilst the two books aren’t comparable, they underline the proximity of this isolated American state to its vast neighbour and political opponent, just 3 miles (4.8km) away at their nearest point. It is also a poignant reminder of how, nearly a decade after I stepped onto Russian soil, my round the world odyssey is nearing a close. But time for reminiscences later…
This novel focusses on seventeen-year-old Tracy Sue Petrikoff, who is a little rough around the edges to put it mildly. A natural born trapper and hunter raised in the Alaskan wilderness, Tracy Petrikoff spends her days tracking animals and running with her dogs in the remote forests surrounding her family’s home. Though she feels safe in this untamed land, Tracy still follows her late mother’s rules: Never Lose Sight of the House. Never Come Home with Dirty Hands. And, above all else, Never Make a Person Bleed. Her mother having died, her father, in an effort to control her after she is expelled for attacking a classmate, grounds Tracy, forbidding her from doing everything she loves: caring for their sled dogs, going out into the woods, hunting — and racing in the Iditarod.
For Tracy, this is a life-threatening sentence. Driven by an unrelenting hunger and facilitated by a feral skill at trapping, she doesn’t just crave being outdoors, she needs it.
“I had learned pretty quick that a couple days without going into the woods put me out of sorts…If I went too long without hunting, my belly ached something awful and my muscles went all trembly. I felt weak.”
Tracy has inherited these characteristics from her mother, whose death is shrouded in mystery. Their relationship is integral to the book as Bradbury discretely pieces together mother and daughter to reveal a supernatural trait that binds and burdens them:
“Some learning, I had got from books…The other kind of learning, you drink it in, too. It’s warm and it spreads through you, wakes up your muscles and sharpens your mind, and you can see clearly, not just with your eyes but with your whole self, and then you know what you didn’t before. How a squirrel plans its route from branch to branch. How a mouse will hear you before it ever sees you. How a snowshoe hare knows to run in a zigzag, not in a straight line, to confuse its predator.”
When her father isn’t watching, Tracy breaks for the woods to check her traps and is suddenly attacked by a stranger. Though she escapes, the stranger stumbles into the yard of their home a few days later, bleeding heavily from stab wounds.
Haunted by what she might have done, Tracy returns to the clearing where she was attacked and discovers a pack left behind containing enough money to enter the Iditarod. So begins a series of events that unravels Tracy’s life.
In steps Jesse, a boy about Tracy’s age, looking for work and bearing his own secrets. At first, Tracy is suspicious of him, seeing him as an intruder until she pries Jesse’s history from him and uncovers a connection between them - the stranger. As Tracy and Jesse’s affection for one another grows, Tracy’s fear of the stranger develops into obsession, leading to a tragic misjudgement.
Tracy’s actions may shock, anger, even repulse. The theme of blood is recurrent here interlinking her feral need of animal blood - preferably as it dies - of things needing to be kept to herself alone. The blood motif carries through to her own development into womanhood, her first menstruation coming with fear, confusion on her part, and embarrassment on her widowed father’s; a progression underlined by her qualification from the junior to the adult Iditarod that year – and of course her growing feelings for Jesse. A nod to the Angela Carter/Neil Jordan film “The Company of Wolves” perhaps? In the end, though, she is just a young girl aching for her mother. She searches her memory, recalling conversations and conjuring her image, trying to understand what her mother gave to her:
“I didn’t know I was crying till a sob wrenched itself from me. I covered my face and wept, aching for her. Aching after her. She was just a few feet from me, close enough for me to ask her anything, but I didn’t have no more questions. I only wanted to tell her to stay.”
What does it mean to be wild? This question pulsates throughout The Wild Inside as tension builds and the plot twists and gyrates to an unpredictable ending. Narrated primarily in first person by Tracy, Bradbury chooses to let the story unfold through dialogue between the characters while leaving some details to the reader’s imagination.
There is barely any physical description of the characters outside of “Scott and me both with Mom’s dark hair, Dad’s brown eyes.” Brief descriptions of the landscape paint a black-and-white picture of Alaska, adding a sinister tone to the book.
Bradbury’s prose shines brightest when describing the exhilaration Tracy feels when she becomes part of someone or something she is close to:
“I took Su [one of her dogs] in and bounded down the snowy trail, and the delight that flooded my body was complete and overwhelming, pure, undiluted happiness. I felt the tug of the harness and saw no other dogs in front of me, felt the whole team watching as I led. I bolted my food, barely tasting it, and I scratched at my own ears, and I napped in front of the woodstove and in piles of my brothers and sisters and teammates. I watched white snow fall across the black-and-grey world and the frigid air sent a shot of electricity through me, and I howled, the only way to give voice to my want.”
Those anticipating an adventure novel about the Iditarod will have to find it elsewhere – and Jack London this is not. But those who thrive on the unexpected won’t be disappointed. The Wild Inside is a compelling mystery and suspense-filled thriller that, in getting inside the isolated and feral mind of Tracy give us a glimpse into the character of Alaska itself…
I now leave the US of A (just in time some might say!) and continue onward into it’s massive northern cousin, Canada, similar in size to the US (the fourth largest country in the world by landmass) yet with only 10% of the US population. As with other massive countries, in deference to its size, I shall be reading a selection of books set across Canada. I am currently debating whether to go with regions or provinces and will update on the outcome very soon!