Within This Wilderness by Feenie Ziner ~ 1978. This edition: Akadine Press, 1999. Softcover. ISBN: 1-888173-86-6. 225 pages.
My rating: 8.5/10
I read this book some months ago, and posted a brief mention of it as part of a round-up post. Expanded here, and re-posted in order to include this in the Canadian Book Challenge #8.
Within This Wilderness is an autobiographical account of Ziner’s final attempt to come to terms with her adult son’s rejection of society and his retreat to the remote coastal woods of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island.
The 1978 Kirkus review:
Feenie Ziner’s son Ben was one of those Vietnam war casualties who was never in uniform: spooked by the military buildup, repelled by the consumer culture, he dropped out of school and took off for the Northwest, talking of cosmic energy and inner space, drifting in and out of lack-limbed communes, ultimately settling on his own wilderness island. Anxious for his return or at least some answers, Ziner flew in after he’d been living alone for nearly two years, and her skillfully developed account of what transpired between them – a progressive disarmament – slips over the boundaries of personal experience. She masters the primitive flusher and inures herself to thoughts of wolves (“I’ve read Farley Mowat”); he points out handmade appliances and shares new wisdoms (“Plastic is to us what horses were to the Spanish”). They lie to each other, spar philosophically, and resume a fragile peace. Even the eccentric neighbors – classic misfits – find him difficult. “Why does he make himself so damned. . . inaccessible?” “Why does he live that way? As if he were expiating for some kind of a sin?” She draws on the tranquillity of the place, reads the I Ching with the beatific vegetarian round the bend (“The companion bites a way through the wrappings”), and waits. And eventually the staunch independence unmasks, the precarious self-esteem surfaces, a pained confession of inadequacy is spoken. One must suppress dark thoughts about the shaping of this material (could it have happened so smoothly? was she taking notes?) for the perfect curve of events seems almost too good to be true. But Ziner deftly renders the nature of their exchange and the nuances of her private adventure, and the illumination of his fringe benefits and her mainstream hollows will reach that audience attuned to generational discord and cultural reflections.
I found this book deeply moving, relating (of course!) to the mother-figure as she tries to figure out just what is going on with her son, and how much of it had to do with her. Her son’s back story leads one to speculate that it was not so much what his parents did as what he was in and of himself, but the mother-angst is no less because of this.
Feenie Ziner turns this very personal aspect of her life into something engagingly relatable. I myself found it comforting, being involved in the same stage in my life in relation to my own newly adult son – that point where they wander off and do slightly inexplicable things and leave you wondering just where you lost your place in the parenting manual – oh, hang on – was there a manual? – and the only thing one can cling to is the thought that your motherly experience is widely shared.
The worries in both of our cases, I hasten to add, are not as much about the moral state of the offspring as about the little details about how they are going to feed themselves, and the lack of any obvious-to-the-parental-eye long-term planning “career”-wise.
Within This Wilderness, along with its deeper moments, is permeated with wry humour, as the author turns her thoughtful gaze upon herself, and the various characters she encounters as she steps into her son’s out-of-the-mainstream world.
Curious about the whole Ziner ménage, I recently tracked down Feenie Ziner’s 1966 memoir, A Full House, detailing her life with her husband, acclaimed artist Zeke Ziner, their two young sons, and newborn triplets. I will be writing about this memoir in more depth in a future post.
“Ben” Ziner is in reality Joe Ziner, and he did stay on Vancouver Island, pursuing an eventual calling as an artist and printmaker. Joe Ziner founded Percolator Press in Courtenay, B.C., which specializes in graphic art and illustrated books.
Very much worth reading. Recommended.