Wilderness Tips is my third fiction collection of 2019! That’s. . . a small number. I read SO many short stories in grad school that I got burned out on them and have spent the last nine years reading novels and nonfiction. Margaret Atwood’s work is hit or miss for me. While I loved Oryx & Crake (I even taught the novel in a college literature course), I dragged my brain begrudgingly through Cat’s Eye. Alias Grace was good, but I read it right on the back of watching the wonderful limited series on Netflix, so that likely affected my reading.
In the heyday of short stories, back when “short story” meant a publication of around twenty-five pages, readers could expect fully-developed, richly-plotted works. Today, a short story in a new collection is typically around twelve pages; writers lean toward funky, open-ended, slice-of-life tales. Our attention spans have waned, and publishers put word and/or page count limits on what writers can submit. So it was with glee that I noted Wilderness Tips, published in 1991, contains ten short stories, each one (no surprise) about twenty-five pages.
I compared Atwood’s stories in this collection to a spinning saw blade of womanhood and stand by that. There was a focus on reproduction, whether the characters were pregnant, had ovarian cysts, missing young motherhood, or singing about menstruation products. There’s something about stories that mention women’s reproductive processes that make me warm and fuzzy. Maybe because I’ve read many stories that normalize penises as something we’re supposed to discuss. Or kneel down to. And worship. Rupi Kaur shared photos normalizing periods, but they were removed from Instagram for violating the “sexual acts, violence, and nudity” policy. Meanwhile, photos of women in highly revealing swimwear or underwear are welcome on Facebook thanks to users who don’t find the photos objectionable — only because the subjects are sexy.
Atwood also addressed sex as a bartering tool, mainly as a way to get secrets to use later against men. Does that sound devious? Sure, but in an age of men legislating women’s bodies — while not even understanding that a fertilized egg in a Fallopian tube is NOT a pregnancy — I’m all about using whatever power we have to accomplish what we need to. As Malcolm X said of oppressed people, “By any means necessary.” I’m not a violent person, nor am I malicious. But I AM angry and feeling a little guerilla. Welcome to America.
Looking at the stories in Wilderness Tips as a whole, I found the characters memorably crafted and appreciated both the Canadian outdoors as a setting (there a couple of summer camp and cabin house stories) as well as her city-dwellers (Toronto in the 1960s or 1980s, mostly). The characters and setting helped me enjoy the way a theme established early on in a story came full circle at the end. I know readers who find that method tacky, but I believe it’s the payoff at the end, as if Atwood and I shared a worthy secret.
A highly readable, highly recommended short story collection that didn’t suffer from an unevenness in quality.