Girl flees from bullies into wilderness

LeeAnne Baker’s debut young-adult novel, “Lost,” is a sensitive portrayal of teenage bullying. In light of several high-profile bullying cases in the last few months, this is a well-imagined and careful story about a girl who was mistreated by her classmates but grows from her unlikely circumstances.

Baker, who lives in Saranac Lake, invites us deep into the psyche of a high school junior named Jen – the type of girl who takes pride in her piano playing and uses words like “hubris.” As we learn by the end of the first chapter, she’s also the type of girl whom jocks might slip a roofie.

From the first line, Baker’s writing has a nice rhythm (“Clickety clack, clickety clack. Crap. Coupled with the obnoxious perfume “) though “coupled” is an uncomfortable opening verb for a novel about sexual harassment.

By the second page, the perfumed girl has whipped out a “bling slathered iPhone” and confronted Jen with pictures of a naked girl passed out at a party. Jen recognizes herself in the photos, realizes she was drugged, steals her mother’s car and crashes it on a dirt road in the Maine woods.

If that seems like a lot for the first day in a series of 33, it is. Some of the most interesting material in the book has come and gone before Baker has a chance to explore it. While bullying and date rape are always behind the scenes, Jen’s re-entry into society becomes a simple, month-long survival story.

Some of the details of wilderness survival are a little speculative – anyone who has ever cooked a wild rabbit knows that burning its hair makes anything but a “delightful smell,” and that that they’re too lean to start a cabin-threatening grease fire – but nicely imagined nonetheless.

Eventually, Jen becomes comfortable providing for herself in the woods and decides that her malefactors back home are “nothing to me now.”

There’s even a baptism scene in which Jen submerges herself in the water, learns to catch and cook fish, and says, “Today I found something special about me that wasn’t about being the best. It was about being confident, and knowing I can take care of myself, knowing I am capable of so much more than I ever thought possible. . I will keep this day with me for the rest of my life: the day I started to like myself.”

These are some rosy feelings, but thankfully Baker doesn’t indulge them too heavily. Jen realizes that her comfort in the woods can’t last forever: Winter’s coming, and her most promising source of food has been dandelion leaves.

Baker sets up a real, howling wilderness for her protagonist – the kind that will eventually kill a girl like Jen. And, if only because of this choice, “Lost” shares more with classic bildungsromans like “Lord of the Flies” and “The Call of the Wild” than with feel-good stories like “My Side of the Mountain.”

While those stories have a timeless feel – suggesting that the wilderness will reduce us all to equal savages eventually (noble or otherwise) – “Lost” never leaves the insistent and blaring present.

Not only is the entire narrative in present tense, Jen’s world is steeped in current technology, trends and the ultimate ephemerae – teenage TV shows. Though the tense and distinct voices suggest stream-of-consciousness, Jen’s voice is too distant to be convincing as a straight transcription of her thoughts. Her brassy humor seems at odds with her level of preparedness and experience.

“My hair is a greasy disaster, and I could plant seeds in the dirt under my fingernails,” she says, on the morning of the fifth day, “What is up with Maine’s Search and Rescue team? It’s been almost a freaking week already!”

By day eight, she says, “As much as I really don’t like talking to people, I think there’s a reason we live in groups: A person can get sick of themselves pretty damn quick. Everyone needs a diversion from their own monotonous thoughts. My God, I’m like the most boring person I know.”

And by then, or slightly thereafter, I started to agree. Jen’s wilderness adventure is predictable distraction from the more serious perspective of her mother.

Though Baker’s main themes are couched in the circumstances of a high-schooler, we also see them through the eyes of Jen’s mother, Candy. Her frustration and helplessness are more subtle than Jen’s, but they’re more resonant for it. While Jen’s experience is showy, it’s fundamentally simple and formulaic. She finds food, keeps a fire going and occasionally has self-revelatory moments. But Candy’s quiet impotency is both recognizable and open-ended.

While Jen makes witticisms like, “Can someone please tell me the point of flies, anyway? They are like the state bird of hell,” her mother is questioning how people everywhere “went to work this morning, or took out their garbage, or ate their cereal.”

Candy’s probing reflections bring us welcome snippets of melody: “how freckles play across her nose in the summer” or “playing in the sprinkler and dancing on the lawn, twirling around with her hair trailing behind her in the breeze.”

Jen’s narrative keeps us hooked, but at worst, she’ll die. Honestly, her demise might have created some nice closure. The tragedy of her mother’s story is that she’ll face up to some ugly truths, whether or not Jen lives.

But of course, Jen survives her ordeal to give a platitude-studded salutatorian speech at high school graduation. The last we hear from Candy, though, is all we need:

“Her bones jut out everywhere, and her skin is an ashy purple. There are cuts and scrapes up and down her arms. Her hands are bandaged … her hair is shorn close to the scalp. None of this matters. I just sit and watch her eyelids flutter and her chest move up and down, basking in the sight of her.”

This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.