I’ve reviewed three other Charles McCarry books on this blog, all three superb spy novels or political thrillers. I’ve described them as cool, perfect, and unemotional, yet not heartless; Paul Christopher as McCarry’s poet-spy, for instance, is always keenly aware of the consequences of his actions, even when he knows what he must do. They’re some of the best spy novels I’ve ever read, easily on a par with Alan Furst’s. When I took Bride of the Wilderness with me to France, therefore, I eagerly expected more of the same.
I could not have been more wrong. Bride of the Wilderness is… well, it’s an epic historical novel, with a love story in it that almost qualifies it as a romance. The book begins in the late 17th century, during the reign of Charles II, with the birth of Fanny Harding. Her mother dies in childbirth, and her father Henry brings her up as tenderly (and as unconventionally) as any father could. She is quiet, intelligent, resourceful, musical, and observant. Fanny has a dangerous secret, however: according to her French mother’s wishes, she has been baptized a Catholic — something that must be hidden at all costs during the terrible religious disturbances of the age.
Henry Harding, a shrewd, cool and penetrating businessman, has been close friends with Oliver Barebones since childhood. The two could not be more unlike. Oliver is a big-hearted, generous, lusty fool, eager to protect whom he loves and completely ignorant of the best way to do it. When he falls in love for the first time in middle age, with Rose, a chilly girl obsessed with witchcraft, it’s not only his own undoing but Henry’s, and Fanny’s too. After a rapid-paced series of events, disaster strikes: Henry is dead, and Fanny is destitute, her house literally pulled down around her ears. There is nothing left for Fanny, or for Oliver and Rose, but to go to the New World, where Oliver owns a swath of land. And so they sail.
I am not afraid of spoiling the book by telling you these events, because all this happens in less than the first hundred pages, and there are four hundred more to come. The rest of the book, long as it is, is incredibly gripping. Fanny, Oliver and Rose, and the preacher who accompanies them, Edward Ash, find their American settlement. They encounter the French (including a handsome officer named Philippe de Saint-Christophe, who saves Fanny’s life). They encounter Abenaki Indians, who are scarcely more savage than the British and the French themselves in that wild country; only the French and the Jesuits have tried to understand the natives of the New World. They walk through giant, untouched forests, where the wild strawberries are so thick it’s like walking through strawberry jam. We see all this through Fanny’s eyes: cool, unprejudiced, and most of the time in mortal danger.
At first, reading this book took me aback, because I was expecting a spy novel, and I got a sweeping historical epic instead. But once I settled into what I was actually reading, I couldn’t put it down. (I read it for nine hours straight on a plane. It had to be pretty good.) It’s full of vivid description, brilliant characterization — in just a few words, McCarry can make you love or hate a character — and quick, stunning action. And in fact, there’s even a little taste of espionage — the first Christophers in the New World! This novel reminded me of nothing so much as Larry McMurtry’s wonderful Lonesome Dove (a book I adore), despite the fact that the two books take place in different time periods and places, and have very different central characters. In some way, the two novels have a similar sense that the worlds they inhabit are terribly violent and unpredictable, that when unknown cultures collide marvelous or unspeakable things may happen, and that only a strong personal code of ethics (uninformed by religion — neither McMurtry nor McCarry cares for religion much) can bring order to chaos.
Bride of the Wilderness isn’t what I was expecting, but it hasn’t diminished my sense that Charles McCarry is a truly great, nearly unrecognized author. If you’re in the mood to take on a grand, big-hearted novel that won’t let you go until the last page, I suggest you try this one.