Book: “A History of Wild Places” by Shea Ernshaw
Publishing Info: Atria Books, December 2021
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from NetGalley.
Book Description: Travis Wren has an unusual talent for locating missing people. Hired by families as a last resort, he requires only a single object to find the person who has vanished. When he takes on the case of Maggie St. James—a well-known author of dark, macabre children’s books—he’s led to a place many believed to be only a legend.
Called Pastoral, this reclusive community was founded in the 1970s by like-minded people searching for a simpler way of life. By all accounts, the commune shouldn’t exist anymore and soon after Travis stumbles upon it… he disappears. Just like Maggie St. James.
Years later, Theo, a lifelong member of Pastoral, discovers Travis’s abandoned truck beyond the border of the community. No one is allowed in or out, not when there’s a risk of bringing a disease—rot—into Pastoral. Unraveling the mystery of what happened reveals secrets that Theo, his wife, Calla, and her sister, Bee, keep from one another. Secrets that prove their perfect, isolated world isn’t as safe as they believed—and that darkness takes many forms.
Hauntingly beautiful, hypnotic, and bewitching, A History of Wild Places is a story about fairy tales, our fear of the dark, and losing yourself within the wilderness of your mind.
Review: Thank you to NetGalley for sending me an eARC of this novel!
I read the book “The Wicked Deep” by Shea Ernshaw, and while I thought that a story of three witch sisters who were executed and now have a curse upon the town that wronged them would be my jam, I didn’t really care for it. I didn’t really think about it again, but when I saw the description for “A History of Dark Places”, her adult fiction debut, I was incredibly intrigued by the premise of missing people and a possible forest cult. And boy am I glad I picked this up, because this? This WAS my jam!
“A History of Wild Places” pulled the wool over my eyes and totally tricked me. And I went into it sniffing out the twist and the surprises, which I know probably isn’t the BEST way to go into a novel with twists, but hey, it still managed to take me by surprise. So kudos! Ernshaw balances an elephant in the room mystery with another, incredibly intense mystery, and manages to interconnect them in ways that felt satisfying and that pay off. The first mystery is what happened to missing novelist Maggie St. Clair, as well as the man looking for her Travis Wren. The second mystery has to do with the town that St. Clair and Wren found themselves within, an isolated wilderness commune called Pastoral, as some years after their disappearances, the villagers are cut off from the world due to a plague… or is it? In that storyline we follow the perspectives of married couple Theo and Calla, and Calla’s blind sister Bee, who is in love with Levi, the leader of Pastoral. The comparisons to “The Village” are well earned on many levels, but I felt like this book did a good job of actually pulling off what “The Village” was trying to do. I mean, I knew that something was off, and as Theo, Calla, and Bee all got closer and closer to the secrets of Pastoral, the secrets of evidence of Maggie’s and Travis’s presence, and the secrets that they keep from each other as well, the intensity goes higher and higher until it’s completely through the roof. I found myself charging through a good chunk of the book in one sitting because I needed to know what was going to happen, and if my predictions were right. Side note: they rarely were. Ernshaw pulled almost all of her twists off, and they all felt earned.
I also liked all of the characters. Theo, Calla, and Bee are all well thought out and seeing all of them start to question Pastoral, and start to unlock mysteries and memories, was deeply satisfying. I think that Bee was probably my favorite, as she is intrepid, incredibly caring, and a little bit psychic (a trait that she shares with Travis; this wasn’t really explored as much as it could have been, however, and that’s one of the few qualms I had with this book). As he deeply in love with Pastoral leader Levi, but after Levi makes a decision that supposedly keeps the community safe at the expense of the life of one community member, she starts to question everything about the town, and Levi himself. Ernshaw writes a woman who is devoted to her sister and her community, and whose love for a man is starting to crack apart as she begins to realize that he may not be what he seems to be. It’s a woman who is realizing that she is in a cult, and it’s heartbreaking and a little bit scary, as it becomes clear that she is very possibly in serious danger.
“A History of Wild Places” also has a very dreamy quality to it that makes it feel like a dark fairy tale as much as a bone chilling thriller. We have people who have walked into the woods and seemingly disappeared, we have people with the power of visions and deep empathy, and we have a dark and disturbing wood both in an overlapping narrative of Maggie St. Clair’s “Eloise” books (which we get excerpts from here an there), and in the forest surrounding Pastoral that may contain a deadly disease for those who try and cross its borders. A strange and eerie presence is on the pages of this book, and it worked so well for me that I closed the book and let out a long sigh when I was done. It is such a satisfying tone to go with a creepy cult story with a hint of missing person mystery, and it combines to make something so unique and enjoyable.
“A History of Wild Places” is a great dark fairy tale of a thriller. I’m so glad I decided to try out Ernshaw again, because this one worked SO well for me. It’s a wonderful read for a cold winter’s night.
Rating 9: Strange and dreamy, but unsettling and tense, “A History of Wild Places” is a surprising thriller that kept me guessing.
“A History of Wild Places” is included on the Goodreads lists “Cults and Communes in Fiction”, and “2021 Horror Novels Written by Women (Cis and Trans) and Non-Binary Femmes”.