Into the Wilderness, Sara Donati

Note: This review contains spoilers of the oft-cited Diana Gabaldon novel Outlander. Read that review, too!

I thought my Outlander days were over. Then one day I picked up a little 900-page historical romance called Into the Wilderness, and I quickly realized that history repeats itself.

Into the Wilderness follows the adventures of Elizabeth Middleton as she makes the shift from a spinster’s life in England to life on the American frontier, circa 1792. Her simple role as teacher pf the village children is complicated by her burgeoning feminist leanings, conflicts with slave owners, and increasing “entanglement” with the mysterious Nathaniel Bonner. Nathaniel, despite being Scottish or something (I wasn’t really paying attention), has been raised Mohawk. This automatically makes him appealing in a dangly-silver-earring, rough-around-the-edges, knows-how-to-scalp-someone sort of way. The story follows their exploits, as unpredictable and far-flung as the wilderness itself! (Spoiler: They fall hopelessly in love. And we all know how love leads to such standard scenarios as inter-familial feuding, plots to break into jail, and secret meetings involving waterfalls and bearskins. Classic.)

Okay, so before I start in with the criticisms, I have to admit I enjoyed this book. It was a true guilty pleasure. It wasn’t fabulous, but for cheap thrills it does its job. It gets more than a little drawn out near the end, which makes it the type of book you put on hold and come back to between other books. But it was, for the most part, interesting. The historical aspect of the novel was the big drawing factor for me, since I enjoy North American history. The romance often crossed over into gratuity, but given that Into the Wilderness is basically catered to fans of Diana Gabaldon, that was to be expected.

The similarities between this and the Outlander novels is glaring. Comparisons beg to be made from page one, and it’s 100% intentional. Proof:

  1. Diana Gabaldon’s praise for Into the Wilderness is printed on the cover. 
  2. Donati’s acknowledgements come before the story, in which she showers thanks upon Gabaldon for helping her with it.
  3. Our main characters quickly reveal themselves to be very similar to Outlander‘s Claire and Jamie, in personality and physical description (but I’ll get more into that later).
  4. Claire, Jamie, and their nephew Ian are actually alluded and then toasted to about 100 pages into Wilderness.

Legends of the Fall (1994) might be the closest we ever get to seeing the prototypical “frontiers couple” on-screen. Too bad it was colossally stupid.

It’s very clear what’s going on here! For those mourning the end of whatever Jamie Fraser novel they finished last, the Wilderness series steps in as an easy niche-fitting substitute. One Goodreads reviewer classifies Into the Wilderness as Outlander fanfiction, and I have to agree. Also, given that Claire and Jamie are kept so prevalent on the reader’s mind, I didn’t find Donati’s characterizations to be particularly unique. For example:

  • Nathaniel’s pet name for Elizabeth (“Boots”) was reminiscent of Jamie’s calling Claire “Sassenach”.
  • Elizabeth’s emotions are constantly being described as ‘written across her face’, much as Claire’s often are.
  • Nathaniel’s ability to keep his face clear of emotions is similar to Jamie’s.
  • Both men are tall, broad, strong, with long luscious hair that makes the ladies go crazy. (I’m not complaining, I’m just pointing something out!)
  • Both men have complicated histories which apparently mean they can’t stay put. (Nathaniel’s involve troubles with his adoptive culture, while Jamie’s relate to his outlaw status.) They also both have buried treasure.
  • Both couples experience the rage and jealousy of a rabid third party bent on revenge. (Richard Todd is the toned-down Wilderness version of Jonathan Randall.)
  • The bearing of children is an issue in both novels (even though both couples also mate regularly).

So this leaves me with one conclusion: for those of you who have yet to read either, the right place to begin is really Outlander. If you like the genre, Wilderness may also be for you. Personally it didn’t quite sweep me up as I’d hoped, but maybe that’s because I’ve had enough of these flawless (sometimes self-righteous) men and their “wolfish grins” forever cast on the women they love. Enough, already! Give me a near-sighted dweeb with self-deprecating humor instead! Now that’s what I call romance.

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