"The need to understand where we came from is universal," Novella Carpenter proclaims in her memoir, Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild. Reading her saga, perhaps we come a little closer to understanding the impact on us all of the 1960s counter-cultural back-to-the-land movement and the complex intricacies of parent/child relationships.
Gone Feral opens like a good mystery with attention-grabbing suspense. Not only was I pulled into the narrative, I became immersed in the author's joy of authentic living, down-to-earth, close to nature. As a second-generation feral child, Carpenter seemed to appreciate her unconventional upbringing in "voluntary poverty" in the wilds of Idaho. She certainly appeared to follow in her parents' footsteps when she described her life raising goats on an urban farm.
Her journey became an actual and metaphorical manhunt, when she received the news that her unconventional father "went missing" from his remote Idaho community. This event triggered a desperate need in her to renew a relationship that had been dormant many years. She was aching to know why her father deserted her. Also, she was thinking about becoming a mother herself, which added to her desire to track him down.
As a child, her life on the land in Idaho had abruptly ended when her mother left her father. After leaving the mountains, she and her sister were raised by her mother, but with very little contact with her father. Though he had remained in the same isolated community in rural Idaho over the years, contact with him remained elusive. At one moment, while pursuing her father, Carpenter recognized, "I've been trying to get my dad's phone number my whole life."
She does such a good job of story-telling, I couldn't help but feel shattered, too, as she came to understand that she held a romanticized idea of this man, who had decided to remain outside of mainstream America his entire life. She discovers that his service in the Army in Korea, along with his early family history, may have contributed to mental health issues that were more easily masked as eccentricities in the glory days of the hippies. The potential consequences of her children inheriting his mental health problems was a sobering realization, once she got to know her father better.
Carpenter's writing is engaging as she reflects on life cycles from child to adult and the legacies we leave and receive. When she has her own child, the story has come full circle and her empathy grows for the way her father must have felt holding her as an infant. Possibly the greatest understanding she gains is the magnitude of the question she ponders, "What are you after you've lost everything you loved?"
Novella Carpenter's quest results in her learning as much about herself as her father. The apparent gift from this man to his daughter was the cultivation of a capacity to learn and love, and that will surely be passed along to his granddaughter.
Novella Carpenter is a prolific author with a background in biology, English, and journalism. From her blog, you get a feeling for her passion for telling stories. The themes of growing your own food, living in balance with nature, and the diversity of human relationships dominate her writing. Previous publications include The Essential Urban Farmer, authored with Willow Rostenthal (2011), and Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer (2009).
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