What Should Be Wild is a story about deeply imbedded roots – in regards to nature as well as ancestry. A reminder that, although the roots are hidden, buried deep, they are an essential element to construct a whole. Just as the tree wouldn’t be alive without its roots, we would not be alive without ours. The line that stuck out to me most, that I would use to sum up the overall essence of the story, is this:
Tamed. A word for a wild girl made obedient. A word for a hawk with clipped wings, a declawed tiger.
The comparison of the girl losing her wild streak to an animal losing an essential piece of itself, weakening it, suggests that we need our wildness just as a hawk needs untampered wings to fly and a tiger needs claws to defend itself and hunt. Wildness is in our roots. As times changed, as we evolved and built a society, the wildness was suppressed, but never eradicated. We feel it jolt awake and take control when we are in danger – our essential defense mechanism, fight or flight. Our genes remember the times we were savage. The society we built and the rules we imposed on ourselves did not alter our anatomical components or our distant past. They are our roots. Without them we would not be whole, could not survive, and how you react to them makes you who you are.
This is what our protagonist, Maisie Cothay, must come to terms with. Except, she has a much harder hill than societal expectations to climb. She isn’t only held back from her wild instincts from the fear of not being “lady-like” but mainly from a rumored family curse that seemed to manifest itself inside her. Maisie can kill or revive with a single touch. Anything that she touches, or that touches her, or even brushes against her accidentally, is either killed or – if already dead – revived. She has never known genuine human contact, that closeness that is essential to our development of humanity, that ever sought after connection to those around us. She did not even know the warmth of her mother’s womb, her curse having killed her mother before she was able to truly form. She was kept alive by incubation and, once brought home, viewed more like an experiment than a daughter to her father. She was kept hidden, taught to suppress any desires to interact intimately with the world around her, taught to be wary if not outright afraid of what her body could do. Then, she must go against these teachings to join with two male acquaintances to look for her father after he goes missing.
In an ideal world, Maisie, my girl, I would encourage you to have your fill of touching. Touch everyone and everything. The skin is a marvelous organ, marvelous indeed. Yet unfortunately, with your condition, I must insist that you refrain. From touching. We just don’t know enough, you see.
They lived in the Cothay family estate, kept apart by the village not only by distance but also by the rumored Cothay family curse – and the woods bordering the estate and village, also rumored to be cursed. Men from the village have disappeared into the woods either never to be seen again, or returned crazed. Several girls from the Cothay family also disappeared, never to be seen again, into those woods. We learn about them as well, their stories sprinkled in among Maisie’s – essential to her story really.
It started with Alys in 605, viewed as a savage to invading colonizers who slaughtered her people and abused her. She escaped them, and cast a spell in the forest to protect and preserve her, the land, and the memory of her family. The woods answered and also answered to other desperate women that carried her blood in their veins. Kathryn in 1223, almost burnt at the stake for her sexual promiscuity, fled to those woods. Imogen in 1486, her husband unfaithful, filling her with anger and doubt of her worth, searched for him in those woods; and with a single, fleeting thought of how much easier things would be without him and the children she bore him, was whisked away by the woods. Helen in 1666, fled into the woods to hang herself to escape an arranged marriage; the woods preserved her too. Mary in 1708, passed over in youth for not being “conventionally” attractive or sociable and grown too old to be seen as marriage material, fled to the woods before she could be thrown out of the only home she’d known, deemed useless by her brother and therefore a burden to keep around. Emma in 1817, only 5 years old but already cast aside because of a large, red birthmark on her face that marred her beauty. And Lucy in 1888, looking for an escape from a tediously dull life due to a debilitating sickness. All these girls/young women were saved from their fates and preserved in the woods, kept alive for centuries in an other-worldly pocket of woods that was always summer, never able to die and never able to leave. Until Maisie comes along, followed by a discovery of another girl buried in their woods who looks like a clone of the newest Cothay girl. This clone grows as Maisie grows, but stays in a coma-like state. Lucy believes her to be a savior, one who will rescue them when she awakes. Imogen believes her to be pure evil and fears the moment that she will awaken.
I’ll come back to the clone Maisie, but I wanted to touch on the parallels I find exist between Maisie’s struggles and the struggled of her ancestors. Everything that these women were condemned for and ran from in their lives are things that Maisie is forced to suppress as well – albeit for different reasons and with more destructive ramifications if she were to indulge. Kathryn and Helen were doomed for wanting to be in control of their own bodies and love lives; Maisie is forced to suppress sexual and romantic urges once being thrown into a journey with two attractive males at the height of her pubescence. Mary and Lucy were both doomed to solitary lives – Mary for her age after being passed over for marriage and Lucy was told she would never be able to have children due to her illness; Maisie is kept hidden away by her father and, of course, not being able to touch anyone without killing them makes it hard to have a marriage much less children. And not just her ancestors, but the limitations set for all women. That women should be docile, gentle, meek and mild. Academics were closed to women for much of history, and Maisie is kept in the dark about many things – taught that curiosity could be disastrous.
As a child, my harm had all begun with asking: What would happen if I touched this; how could that possibly hurt? Better, I’d been taught, to firmly corral curiosity.
Maisie and her clone are tied to each other by more than just looks. Each time Maisie deliberately decides to use her power, each time she suppresses any wild thoughts or desires, the clone in the woods grows stronger. The physical manifestation of her dark, wild side. What Maisie would avoid, the clone would indulge.
**SPOILERS AHEAD!!! Do not read further unless you are okay with the ending being spoiled before you read or you don’t plan on reading but still want to know how it ends**
Maisie goes through a lot during the search for her father. Her first sexual urges, first loves, betrayal, torture. While she is forced to use her power for her own survival, she feels a part of herself awakening that she did not know existed – realizing for the first time how much power she truly holds. Those feelings strengthen her clone in the woods because the clone is a manifestation of those feelings. We find out that Maisie almost died in her mother’s womb, and her mother felt the woods reaching for her to save Maisie’s life. Maisie’s father found his wife lying unconscious with a vine attached to her navel. The woods were trying to take Maisie, and part of her was preserved there, but not all of her since her father removed them and went to the hospital. So Maisie was left fragmented, stuck between life and death and therefore had the ability to kill or revive.
The showdown between the two Maisies ends quickly. All that is needed is for Maisie to accept her dark, wild side. To accept what lives inside all of us. That none of us are either light or dark, but both. That we would not be whole without both. Which brings me back full circle to the quote I chose at the beginning about the hawk with clipped wings and declawed tiger. The “dark” Maisie tells her:
Life is not some riddle to be solved. The things that matter most cannot be won, cannot be tricked. They won’t be studied, never fully understood. There are no rules to things.
“Dark” Maisie seemed almost more grown, more knowledgeable, than Maisie because these were things Maisie knew, but suppressed because it went against her teachings, against her whole life of strict order and rules. But there will always be things unknown, things undiscovered, things beyond comprehension, and things not able to be restricted to follow our guidelines. We can hardly follow our own rules and guidelines because we don’t fully understand ourselves; we push parts of ourselves away, suppress or ignore basic feelings and instincts, because they do not fit into our new “orderly” way of life, but just because the thoughts and instincts exist doesn’t mean we always have to act on them. But we must acknowledge them. Because they are part of us, part of our past, part of our genes; how we react to them make us who we are. Ignoring them helps no one, especially not yourself. Fragmenting yourself into “acceptable” and “unacceptable” portions will only make you feel incomplete.
Once Maisie accepts and embraces her “dark” side, she is free. Free of her curse. Free of limitations. Free to live.