Wilderness Tips by Margaret Atwood


Wilderness Tips
Margaret Atwood


Wilderness Tips is a collection of ten short stories by Margaret Atwood and was first published in 1989. I enjoyed reading this somewhat unusual group of stories which are tied together loosely with some common themes.

She writes about summer camps, mental breakdowns, marriage and relationships, death, women’s careers and women’s rights, newspapers and social issues.

Some of the stories have surprise endings, some include graphic medical details, and all of them are reflective about times past.

Here’s a brief description of each story:

  • “True Trash” takes place at Camp Adanaqui and is a coming-of-age story about a group of boys who spy on the older teenage waitresses at the camp. Ronette is the center of the boys’ attention and Donny defends her honor in his own seemingly powerless adolescent way.
  • “Hairball” is a strange story of Kat, an angry young woman who faces mental breakdown and exacts revenge on her married lover. Atwood uses the shock of graphic medical details to make a powerful point about mental illness.
  • In “Isis in Darkness,” Richard is with Mary Jo, a stable librarian, but he obsesses over Selena, a mysterious poet he’s met at a coffee shop. It’s a story about marriage and regrets and of being alone.
  • In “The Bog Man,” Connor is an archaeology professor, dedicated to uncovering the history of an ancient, perfectly preserved human sacrifice. He’s having an affair with one of his students, Julie, and he brings her to Scotland to “help” with his research. It’s here where Julie learns to assert her own power, much to Connor’s dismay.
  • “Death by Landscape” is a great story about the friendship between two girls at Camp Manitou, and an irreversible tragedy. Lois spends a lifetime trying to cope with her loss and at the end of the story, Atwood reveals the mystery behind a collection of landscape paintings.
  • In “Uncles,” Mae is a young girl who has no father, but she’s greatly admired by her three uncles. This story starts out flat and bland, but don’t let that trick you. Mae becomes a successful journalist, but she faces jealousy and resentment and the ending is dark and bitter.
  • “The Age of Lead” is a story about the Franklin Expedition of 1845, a British voyage through the Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage. Jane is fascinated by the modern discovery of a frozen man, John Torrington, who died during the expedition. She compares the frozen man to her close childhood friend, Vincent, whose death has left her empty.
  • “Weight” describes the deep loyalty between female friends. Molly has been beaten to death by her husband and her best friend does what she can to raise money and awareness for battered women, using whatever means she has left.
  • “Wilderness Tips” is one of my favorites from this collection. It’s a terrific look at the dynamics between three sisters, their brother Roland and George, a Hungarian refugee, who made fast money in Canada. He’s married one of the sisters, but there’s deception going on.
  • “Hack Wednesday” takes place in the late 1980s and is a look at the changing times, social issues, and growing older. Marcia is a newspaper columnist, but she’s being squeezed out. Her husband, Eric, fights for all the causes, but his career is slowing down. It’s a story about trudging through middle age.

I liked all these stories, but my favorites were “True Trash,” “Death by Landscape,” “Uncles” and “Wilderness Tips.”   While not always upbeat, all of the endings are either surprising, satisfying, or though-provoking, the things I enjoy most from great fiction!

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