A Babe in the Woods by Yvonne Wakefield

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On the night Yvonne’s mother died, leaving her and her two younger siblings parentless, she vowed that when she was old enough she would “build a log cabin from trees on a mountain.” There she would write poetry, make art, and “everything would finally be alright.” Unfortunately ensuing years saw things drift even further from alright.

Initially family members agreed to care for the three children, but it soon came to light that they were only interested in gaining control of the family business. Once the three children were no longer useful, they were abandoned and scattered into the foster care system where Yvonne suffered even more mental and physical abuse.

In spite of these hardships, she never forgot the promise she made to herself. On the day she turned eighteen she collected the money from her trust fund, pack her belongings, and set out to purchase land in Oregon. In the sleepy mountain community of John Day Oregon, Yvonne finds the perfect land. It was secluded, had a stream, and contained plenty of trees to begin building her new home.

After a quick return trip to Minnesota to tie up loose ends and sever certain ties, she returns to begin building her cabin. However, it only takes a day of work for her to realize that she’s woefully unprepared for the task of building a log cabin by hand. A feeling of hopelessness drives Yvonne into town to drown her sorrows in a cup of coffee and a couple of apple fritters.

Although she is leery of strangers, a caring diner owner breaks her defenses and encourages her to contact a local woodsmen skilled in building cabins. Over the course of building her log home, these sorts of found relationships begin to stack up around Yvonne protecting her and providing a safe, nurturing place to begin life again.

This memoir is sure to draw comparisons. The jacket copy even mentions Into the Wild and My Side of the Mountain. While I can’t speak for My Side of the Mountain, I don’t really think Into The Wild is an accurate comparison. The book that kept arising in my mind while reading was Cheryl Strayd’s Wild. Perhaps it was the similar stories of abuse, broken homes, parental deaths, and perseverance, but either way I think it will appeal to similar audiences. I personally found Yvonne to be a more likeable and endearing heroine. Both seemed naive about the journeys they had undertaken, but Yvonne was balanced with a sense of objective, self-awareness that was lacking in Wild.

One of the most interesting aspects of Wakefield’s writing was her use of color. You’ve probably heard the linguistic anecdote about the Inuit language having fifty different words for snow. Their closeness and experience with snow necessitates a highly nuanced way of speaking about and understanding it. The same could be said of Yvonne’s artistic background and her use of color descriptions. She creates and uses colors to describe objects, emotions, and memories in a way that no writer I’ve read has ever done.

In this colorful passage Yvonne contemplates the events, influences, and circumstances that have brought her to the backwoods in Oregon.

Now I’ve put myself out on another limb of sorts, hanging tight to the thought that I might own this spot where evergreen branches bow low. Five nights in a row I squat there beside the creek, stab stick into coals, stir up flames, and in this light continue to think about other colors that made me like,

Inheritance Grab Greed – an uneven blend of raging reds,
Foster Parent Folly – an incestuous smokey scumble of contradictory values,
I’ve been around the block – black and blue,
Are You My Mother – Hello Kitty pink,
Burnt Green Fried Tomatoes – a putrid shade of green,
And “Queen of Mean” Leona Helmsley = a piece of shit brown.

These blends cannot be bought off the shelf, squeezed from tubes, spooned from jars. They are a custom mix of dark tones, convoluted hues with names that brand all the wrong ways. The statute of limitations on these colors may have expired, but they have a shelf life all their own.

The palette to paint the portrait, Girl Sitting Around a Campfire, Stirring Coals, would include other unnatural colors never brought up in police company. And other colors too – a solid earthy mix of values reflecting the foundation laid by caring parents, even though it cracked irreparably when my father first toyed with suicide.

Like Howard Axelrod’s The Point of Vanishing, this memoir wasn’t obtuse or shallow. There is no cut and dried life lesson that Yvonne is spoon-feeding to her readers. She doesn’t have any social drum to beat. She does offer a first hand descriptions of rural community, the dynamics of broken families, and life “off the grid.”

In refreshing contrast to many modern memoirs she avoids braggadocio and luridness and remains humble and private about most things. You won’t feel like you “really know” Yvonne Wakefield after reading this book. Who she is retains a great deal of mystery and intrigue. (Which is, in itself, a wonderful lesson about our relationship to fellow humans beings.) I only had one big complaint about this book and that was that the early review copy lacked photographs. I hope that the final version will include images of Yvonne’s cabin, friends, and family members. I will certainly buy a copy for my bookshelf.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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