Katherine Tegen Books ($18.99)
by Olivia Vengel
If you chop off your own foot in a possibly abandoned meth lab in the wilderness and no one is there to hear you scream, are you still whole? Seasoned YA author Mindy McGinnis’s novel, Be Not Far From Me, explores woman versus nature against a backdrop of the perilous Smoky Mountains. Her protagonist Ashley, like many narrators in wilderness novels before her, has been placed in an uninhabitable landscape and must fight for survival, as after running away from her friends during a camping trip, Ashley wakes up with a severely injured foot and no way home. Fast-paced, dangerous, and maybe a little bit cliché at points, McGinnis’s prose carries the reader along, unharmed, as Ashley fights her way through the forest.
McGinnis’s greatest strength lies in her narrator’s voice and her close connection with the natural world and its harsh realities. From the opening, Ashley is shown to be more in tune to nature than the other characters, having instincts in the wilderness that her friends don’t. She understands the brutality of nature and the way of life in the wild, and it shows in beautiful passages of description and introspection: “One animal’s death is another’s dinner; that’s just the way it is. What remains will go to the earth, yesterday’s bones sinking into today’s dirt, the only bit of life left where a mouse nibbled, leaving tiny indentations that say there was once something of worth there.”
Such musing on life’s tragedies and the road through them, intertwined with Ashley’s matter-of-fact tone, is for the most part done well, allowing the reader to stay in the character’s head without tiring of her. As she wanders through the mountains Ashley reflects on her past, specifically an old friend who met his demise in the very woods she walks through. While we don’t quite get a complex view of him or their relationship, the subplot highlights how comforting it is to read from the perspective of a narrator who thinks so deeply and realistically about tragedy and its lessons.
There are moments where McGinnis’s hand feels a bit heavy, most often when Ashley interacts with other characters. For example, when comparing herself to her best friend, Ashley says, “She is constantly horrified by the bruises on my legs that blossom under poison ivy rashes; I’m equally turned off by her manicures and the fact that she wing-tipped her eyeliner before coming on this hike.” As with many YA novels, these eyeroll moments come whenever Ashley points out a bit too obviously that she is Not Like Other Girls.
But she isn’t, and this novel isn’t quite like others either. It’s rare to find a book whose protagonist is a self-sufficient young woman who surmounts physical conflict with only her own mind and will power, and does so likeably. McGinnis gives us that and more.