In recent years there has been an increasingly apocalyptic flavour to literary fiction, an upsurge in narratives of radical self-reliance in the face of economic, environmental or civil collapse. Given the end-times polarisation of the political climate, the trend is perhaps unsurprising, but in 2017 three debut novels specifically featured teenage heroines schooled in survivalist practices by their fathers. Set in the present rather than some dystopic future, the ultimate challenge in these narratives is not finding a clean water source or concrete bunker, but in navigating the everyday realities of sexual harassment and assault. The catastrophe is rape culture, and it has already happened.
In Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling, fourteen-year-old Turtle lives in a rotting California cabin with her father Martin, a prepper who stockpiles ammunition and dehydrated food, and lectures her on the ‘social lie’ of communal bonds: ‘you’re on your own; society won’t help you.’ Turtle’s mother is dead: Martin claims she took her life. He teaches his daughter to shoot guns and skin rabbits and tells her, admiringly, that she looks ‘raised by wolves.’ When a teacher at Turtle’s school suspects something is amiss, Martin asserts his daughter’s right to autonomy: ‘you cannot dictate that she see a therapist.’ His righteous insistence on self-reliance emerges as a ruse to isolate his daughter, so he can continue subjecting her to verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. When Turtle summons the courage to tell a friend of her father about the abuse, this man refuses, predictably, to ‘get involved.’
Though the novel seems poised to critique what the ideology of ‘self-reliance’ might mean for women, Tallent unfortunately settles for a more sensational narrative that neglects the more mundane, psychological ways victims actually struggle to survive abuse. While Turtle’s ambivalent feelings of loyalty and love for her father speak to the phenomenon of traumatic bonding in abusive relationships, the framing of these feelings as somehow romantic smacks of Nabokovian provocation. Graphic descriptions of sadistic abuse seem to have been included only to dramatically underscore the heroism of Turtle’s eventual escape.
Tallent goes to great efforts to tag Turtle as a feminist heroine: rehearsing her escape on a survivalist sojourn in the woods, she befriends two teen boys who, awed by her prowess, dub her the ‘chain-saw-wielding, shotgun-toting, Zen Buddhist, once-and-future queen of post-apocalyptic America’ whose reign will be ‘hard but fair’. One of these boys, love interest Jacob, is a sensitive type who writes essays on Angela Carter and reads Middlemarch, gushing over Eliot’s ‘broad generous style.’ But the boys’ hyper-literate, irony-laden fawning betrays the fanboy fantasy: Tallent is less concerned with a culture that fails girls and women, than in the heroic pragmatism of a young girl who pulls herself up by her bootstraps and deals with a sole predator herself. As the narrative veers into Stranger Things territory, our off-the-grid heroine employs her DIY skills to battle her abusive father in a scene of bloody carnage; after a cooling-off period of recovery, she heads to see Jacob at the school dance.
A far more nuanced and intelligent novel, Fiona Mozley’s Booker-shortlisted Elmet also features a survivalist heroine who takes the law into her own hands. The book is narrated by Daniel, who lives with older sister Cathy and their father in the house they built on the edge of the Yorkshire woods, where they live by the ‘old ways,’ hunting and bartering. Daddy is no isolationist predator but instead a Robin-Hood-type figure, strong-arming corrupt bosses into paying outstanding wages, and spear-heading an uprising among exploited locals. In retaliation, wealthy landowner Price threatens to expel Daddy and his children from the land they have settled illegally upon, rekindling a longstanding feud. Price, it emerges, once had a shadowy live-in arrangement with Cathy and Daniel’s now deceased mother. Though the details are vague, the stark power asymmetry of this relationship is clear, as Mozley alludes to the economics of consent.
The author also highlights the way that attitudes toward women are modelled and passed down: Price’s two sons sexually harass and assault Cathy in school and out. When Cathy defends herself, the headmistress places the blame on her. Daddy, long disillusioned with formal channels, encourages Cathy to continue fighting back, and she ultimately dispenses her own lethal brand of bare-knuckled justice. As she explains to her brother, she feared becoming like ‘all those other women on the TV, in newspapers, found naked, covered in mud, covered in blood, blue, twisted, found in the woods, found in ditches, never found.’ Mozley has said her novel was written from a place of anger, her fury no doubt fanned by the election of a sexual predator to the office of President. Condensed into her brutal coming of age narrative is a generational feeling of simultaneous powerlessness and revolt. Like My Absolute Darling, Elmet features a dramatic showdown scene, in which Cathy appears warrior-like, naked and bloodied, holding a flaming staff and shotgun.
There is something at once cathartic and discomforting about these tomboys in hand-me-downs who ‘know how to handle themselves.’ The survival ethos they dramatise – pragmatism over preciousness, kill or be killed – is also one embedded in a prevalent victim-blaming discourse on sexual assault. Why did she go back to his room? Why didn’t she just push him off? These are refrains that Emily Fridlund knows well. In her Booker-shortlisted debut History of Wolves, a teenage girl alleges that her new history teacher has molested her and a rumour soon spreads around the school: ‘before he unzipped his pants, before he said just a kiss and pushed her down, he wanted her to know she had a choice.’
Fridlund’s novel is narrated by thirty-seven-year-old Madeline, who was once this girl’s classmate in rural Minnesota. At fourteen, Madeline lived with her parents, a hippie brand of survivalists, in a generator-run cabin on an abandoned commune. When her father was not fishing or salvaging wood, he occasionally took her on rides on his ATV, smashing through pine and sumac fronds; her mother, distracted making handmade goods to sell, rhapsodised Madeline’s freedom to roam the woods unheeded. Yet what follows is far from a portrait of kick-ass autonomy; Fridlund is wary of any romance of self-reliance.
Reflecting on the year of her classmate Lily’s allegation, Madeline remembers being chosen to deliver a special out-of-school presentation on wolves for the attractive new history teacher, Mr Grierson. She feels a dark frisson of power as she announces that ‘alpha wolves are alpha only at certain times and for a specific reason.’ Later, brushing some ice off her teacher’s trousers, she imagines she is grooming him. These words uncannily echo the early pages of Elmet, where Cathy’s story is foreshadowed with the mythical image of a hare who ‘decided not to be prey but rather to run and to hunt … who found herself chased one day by a fox and stopped suddenly and turned and chased back.’ Yet in Fridlund’s novel there is no noble last stand, just a flawed anti-heroine, ill-equipped to navigate the diffuse, insidious ways power actually works.
Baby-sitting her new neighbours’ four-year-old son Paul, Madeline role-plays survival scenarios: fighting off bears, living with only a knife. She is slow to realise that what Paul is actually at risk from is his father, a Christian Scientist professor who subscribes to his own brand of radical self–reliance, refusing to allow his young wife, a former student, to get the medical intervention their son needs. After Paul’s death, Madeline blames herself. Though she is merely the fourteen-year-old babysitter, her parents fail to disabuse her of this idea. To assuage her feelings of guilt, Madeline in turn blames Paul’s mother; she also writes a letter to Mr Grierson, now a convicted sex offender, sympathising with him and blaming classmate Lily for his lot. Welcome to the Badlands of rape culture, where, as Rebecca Solnit writes, ‘every time a man commits a violent act it only takes one or two steps to figure out how it’s a woman’s fault.’
Fridlund’s portrayal of one teenager’s hubristic bravado may be less rousing than a display of righteous vengeance, but it speaks more eloquently of a culture that fails women. The mother of all these survivalist heroines are, notably, either dead – deaths linked to their own trauma – or wearily distant. When the classic coming of age narrative, To Kill a Mockingbird, featured a young girl awakening to the inadequacies of legal and social justice under a single father’s guidance, it included an indictment of vigilantism. Soberingly, these new heroines have instead inherited an ethic of fend-for-yourself pragmatism, one that obscures collective responsibility by favouring private, individual solutions.