Thursday, January 13, 2011

Woodswoman III by Anne LaBastille

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 250 pages
• Publisher: West of the Wind Pubns, 1997
• Price: $17.00
• ISBN-10: 0963284614
• ISBN-13: 978-0963284617

As much as I enjoyed the first two books in this series of four Woodswoman memoirs by Anne LaBastille, giving both high marks, there is a distinct dip in quality of copy in this third book. Woodswoman III is the first in the series that LaBastille has published herself, under the same name with which she refers to her wilderness cabin—West of the Wind. Indeed, a disproportionate part of this story is about her venture in self-publishing and very little about wilderness living.

The Woodswoman series is about, or described to be about, the wilderness life of Anne LaBastille, who more or less built her own log cabin in the Adirondacks after a divorce. She was in her 20s at that time, and each of the first three books spans a decade of her life, with the final installment covering five years.

For those who have read the first two, the third is hardly worth the bother. There are sections that are almost verbatim the same as in previous books. It is as if the author is running out of new things to say about living in wilderness … and, truthfully, it seems to be a bit of a stretch by now to call it wilderness. Black Bear Lake, the name the author has given the lake on which she built her cabin, is fictional in order to protect her exact location from overly curious fans. Once again, LaBastille complains about intrusions, yet on the other hand, she herself has become quite the social butterfly by this installment.

Woodswoman III is about her adventures in starting her self-publishing business, obstacles she must overcome in marketing, setting up shop in her garage—and, oh yes, she now has one! as LaBastille has purchased a second residence, a traditional farmhouse, where she seems to spend more and more of her time rather than at her wilderness cabin. It is also a story of a woman who truly loves her dogs.

Since LaBastille’s day, self-publishing has changed immensely, so her insights are no longer relevant today, if only as a kind of history as how such things were once done. So much of her time is spent making rounds of bookstores in the Adirondack and surrounding area that the reader who first read the Woodswoman books for a vicarious experience of living close to nature will have to look elsewhere for nature writing.

From an editorial standpoint, the story suffers as well. For all of the author’s complaining about difficult editors at big publishing houses, this installment could very much have used an objective editorial hand. There are typos, yes, and grammatical errors, but mostly, expert cuts would have much improved the storyline and perhaps even saved it. Like it or not, an author is one’s own worst editor. We lack the fresh eye on our own work, and we certainly lack objectivity. A persistent and committed writer might, over repeated readings, catch most errors, but those painful cuts—painful to the author only—often need to be done by another’s hand. There is a reason editors exist, and it is a good one.

Yet there are positives in this book, too. An occasional respite from her story of self-publishing reminds us of why we began reading this series in the first place. A refreshing occasional description of the wild woods, or the enchanting loons on the lake, never gets old. Her account of a camping trip with two rookie women campers is good fun. Survival of a fierce storm is exciting. And, LaBastille’s secondary storyline, about her ongoing battle to preserve the Adirondack environment, and to educate the reader about ecological matters, still shines.

Two reasons I would still recommend this book are LaBastille’s detailed descriptions of the effects of boating and other water craft on the ecological health of lakes and other bodies of water. No doubt most of us who enjoy being around water have little or no idea how much damage larger, faster boats can wreak on water and shorelines, including the wildlife that depend on that environment. Certainly I had little idea that the difference in speed and horsepower of a boat could be so detrimental. LaBastille writes about the pollution left behind by these inconsiderate boaters, but also the effects of ever larger wakes, eroding shorelines, drowning baby loons, even toppling over people in smaller boats such as canoes. There is room for compromise, as she makes clear, but her fight with big boaters on Black Bear Lake is valuable reading.

The second reason readers may enjoy this book is LaBastille’s writing about the aging woman, not just in wilderness, but in our society in general. She despises ageism, and encourages older women to embrace a healthy process of aging, rather than giving in to contemporary American society’s worshipping of youth. As a woman in my 50s, I can only applaud her views about women embracing our age, whatever it might be:

“There’s an excitement to aging. I wouldn’t go back a day. I like where I live, what I do, how I look, and what I know. The obsession with youth in our culture is sick. Over 50 and you’re ready for the ash heap. Baloney! Older women should tell people forthrightly, ‘This is what it looks like to be 57.’ (Or whatever your age is.) Let your hair go grey… Let your head be haloed with ‘silvery veils and white chiffon.’ It’s beautiful.” (page 221)

She goes on to encourage women to become environmental activists, because we are naturally nurturing, and then expands to our relationships, reminding us that we do just fine in solitude:

“Look at the facts. Older women command 60 percent of the wealth in this country. They’ve learned much and are free to study, travel, teach, and participate in anything they wish. Child-rearing is no longer a responsibility. Women live longer. Since we’re the natural care-takers in this world, I feel the greatest good that women can do is help the environmental movement. Women can save Earth’s creatures and the planet.

“To be effective, we must … stay persistent in our environmental concerns. We need to feminize ecology and bring on more grass-roots activism.

“… What about men in my life? I know and work with many. I have many close male friends. Yet the few I’ve truly loved are gone. I’m not the only woman in this situation. I scarcely know a woman over 50 who still has a man in her life. Indeed, half of all women in America over 40 live alone. Some keep looking for the right one; others don’t even want a relationship … Today, some men are angry at women and their independence. How else can we explain women being battered, gang-raped, victims of sexual harrassment in the armed forces, the workplace, everywhere? … My feeling is that every woman should have a position of power in her later years … Every woman should do something that makes her important in her eyes …” (pages 222-223)

Let the reader decide if there is reason enough to pick up this third LaBastille book. If your motives are to enjoy nature writing, it falls short. If you are seeking encouragement to be a woman who is self-reliant, in or out of a relationship, you may well find it here. If you are a diehard LaBastille fan, allow her these shortcomings and read the book anyway. Having come this far, I am reading the fourth book now. On the other hand, you may do just as well to read the first two books and hang it up there. You won’t have missed much.

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