The Wake-Up Call of the Wild; By Nita Nettleton; Published by McRoy & Blackburn; 142 pages; 2005; $12.50 (softcover).
Amnesia is a clichéd plot device. Wolverines are not. Mix in a remote Alaska cabin and odd neighbors and you have the quirky fundamentals of Nita Nettleton’s debut novel, “The Wake-Up Call of the Wild.”
It is a bit mystery, a bit self-discovery and a lot of gutsy, womanly wit.
The story opens on a spring day when a half-dead young wolverine, in an act of starving desperation, approaches a remote cabin. The gamble pays off as a broken old cache yields a bonanza of stale, dried meat. But bigger meals may be on hand, based on strange noises and the smell of blood. The critter checks out the potential kill site:
“It took the clever megaweasel about two minutes, tops, to figure out how to get inside the cabin, but then she moved very slowly and carefully,” Nettleton writes. “There didn’t appear to be any other predators. The smells were intoxicating, but perhaps best of all she was sure she picked up some blood scent and followed it. There was a platform in a room at the back of the cabin and the smell was coming from it. Human female; relatively fresh blood. She checked out the perimeter, sniffed the legs of the platform and carefully balanced on her lean haunches for a peak at the carcass. It was then she noticed it was still breathing. Not a good sign.”
The wolverine waits for the body to expire. But it doesn’t.
The woman wakens with severe bruising injuries and no memory of who or where she is or how she got there. Things are not what they first seem to be to her woozy senses, starting with the startled animal in bed with her. It might not be a cat after all.
The woman slowly recovers, physically and mentally. Calling herself Jane Doe, she seeks clues to her situation. Why does she have nightmares about a red-haired man screaming at her? Is it possible someone beat her and left her for dead? Why hasn’t the man whose belongings dominate the cabin returned?
What she discovers brings her to another set of disturbing questions. Was her old life worth reclaiming? Is she better off alone in the north woods?
In the meantime, her only companion is the scrawny wolverine she calls Maggie. Subsisting on pancakes and Spam, they form an unlikely alliance.
Habituating wildlife to people is a dicey topic to work into popular fiction. Don’t try this at home! But the author avoids anthropomorphism, attributing no larger motive to Maggie than the urge to get edible items into her powerful jaws.
Eventually a few other people appear out of the woods or alighting on the small airstrip outside the cabin door. They are such an eccentric lot Jane wonders if she hallucinated them; they seem to find nothing remarkable about her.
They do reveal some pertinent information about the area. It is in a remote forest in the general vicinity of Talkeetna. And there is a dead guy in the next cabin up the creek.
This could make for a creepy tale of despair and madness, but Nettleton chooses a very different tack.
Jane finds herself enjoying life on the wild side. She loses weight, chops off her dyed hair and makes berry jam. The only shortcoming to her rustic life is a dearth of serious chocolate.
Inspired by her surroundings and letting her imagination run, she finds herself jotting in a notebook, writing the tale of a plucky little wolverine named Maggie and an off-the-wall mystery novel about a confident woods woman named Berry Pie.
Inserted in a distinctive font, snippets of these make for an entertaining story within the story, such as this excerpt:
“The woman stopped short and sidestepped lightly behind a blooming red-berried elder. She dropped to her knees in the dried twigs and duff, glad she had taken time to change from pink seersucker shorts into her Carhartts and clip her old Ruger on her belt. There was no sign of life in the tiny cabin, but she knew better than to take that at face value.”
Summer must end in Alaska, and thus Jane Doe’s amnesiac idyll does as well. But by the time she regains her old name, she has become a new woman imbued with confidence and purpose.
The book’s breezy brevity is both an asset and a liability. It has great momentum, with its fluid prose and unexpected developments. But the author could have enriched the book by lingering on its intriguing subsidiary characters and weaving the subplots into something more substantial. Even the appealing little wolverine, for all her prominence, plays only a peripheral role in Jane’s inner-directed odyssey.
The Wake-Up Call of the Wild” is a lark, a gentle and witty tale. Although lightweight, it is well written and a charming entertainment.
Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.
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