Reviews > Published on May 6th, 2014

Bookshots: "Untamed" by Will Harlan

Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review


Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island

Who Wrote It?

Harlan could teach a master class on how to describe natural landscapes...he has a delightful knack for rendering pitch-perfect portraits of human characters in three sentences or less.

Will Harlan, editor in chief of Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine. He spent 19 years researching Untamed, his first book.

Plot in a Box:

One uncompromising woman’s lifelong quest to save sea turtles from extinction and protect the wilderness of Cumberland Island from human progress.

Invent a New Title for This Book:

Turtles on the Beach

Read This If You Like:

Thoreau, Calamity Jane stories

Meet the Book’s Lead:

Carol Ruckdeschel is the quintessential frontier woman, living in a wooden shack on a wild island that she walks in her bare feet. She gets along with animals better than people. Carol becomes a respected authority on turtle biology and curator of her own museum despite her stubborn refusal to dress up, play political games, or finish college.

Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by:

Jennifer Lawrence would play Carol as a young woman, and Sigourney Weaver would be perfect for older Carol.

Setting: Would You Want to Live There?

While I am typically not a fan of the great outdoors for longer than a summer afternoon, even I was moved by Will Harlan’s gorgeous descriptions of Cumberland’s many natural wonders. I seriously contemplated how hard it would be to sell off the trappings of my worthless material life so I could build a shack on a tiny island crawling with gators.

What Was Your Favorite Sentence?

His claim to fame was being able to jump flat-footed into a barrel and then jump back out, a feat that earned him thousands in wagers. Bill [Carnegie] drank heavily and married a prostitute, which got him banished from the island by Lucy.

The Verdict:

Untamed, though dense with biographical information and long scientific digressions, reads like a novel.  It is the story of Carol, a young woman who fell in love with nature and devoted her life to defending it, joining a sisterhood of guardian matriarchs that have protected the wilderness throughout history. Cumberland Island almost becomes a character unto itself as Harlan documents its many rhythms and moods. The long, rambling descriptions of the plants and animals that inhabit it never becomes a dull recitation of facts. The mating habits of sea turtles are just as compelling a part of the narrative as the stories about the Carnegies and their political maneuvers to profit from the island. Harlan could teach a master class on how to describe natural landscapes, and as you can see above, he has a delightful knack for rendering pitch-perfect portraits of human characters in three sentences or less.

The ecological subtext is far from subtle, but for most of the book it is restrained and stops just shy of being preachy. Harlan simply tells the story of the island and how it has changed since human beings arrived there, and lets the reader connect the dots. Typically the book’s more passionate soapbox speeches are voiced by Carol. This makes even the more radical diatribes easier to digest because they are coming from a character we have come to know and like. But in the last five or so chapters, all pretense of story vanishes as the narrator shoves her aside in order to tell you exactly what you are supposed to think about what you have just read. Before you finish reading Untamed and get a chance to draw your own conclusions about the story, the author is already trying to force his interpretation into your brain. The narrator becomes a disappointed parent lecturing the human race for not cleaning up after itself, stating in superfluously purple prose all of the points that the previous 97% of the book already made. Sadly, this undermines most of the convincing that Carol’s tale does. Reading the last chapters was akin to watching an Olympic skater crash the last jump of a gold-medal performance. More minds are changed by novels than textbooks, and Untamed would be a great one of the former if it were just a few chapters lighter.  

About the author

BH Shepherd is a writer and a DJ from Texas. He graduated from Skidmore College in 2005 with degrees in English and Demonology after writing a thesis about Doctor Doom. A hardcore sci-fi geek, noir junkie and comic book prophet, BH Shepherd has spent a lot of time studying things that don’t exist.  He currently resides in Austin, where he is working on The Greatest Novel Ever.

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