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Ways of the Wilderness: A Personal Journey Through Religion and Literature

by Anne McPherson

Ways of the Wilderness, the new book from Ontario writer and art curator Anne McPherson, is rooted in McPherson’s academic work some 40 years ago. Inspired by H.A. Williams’ The True Wilderness, McPherson realized that “the true wilderness was not a place but a state of being.” Later, during her pursuit of religious studies, McPherson expanded her examination of the wilderness as a symbol for, among other things, human alienation and loss. Ways of the Wilderness is the result.

The book traces the metaphoric and symbolic value of the wilderness as depicted in scripture, particularly Genesis and Exodus, through mythology and folktale and into contemporary literature, exploring the shifting resonances of the idea from the theological to the literary. While not presenting any groundbreaking insights, the arguments in Ways of the Wilderness are convincing.

Most valuable are McPherson’s close readings of a number of modern and contemporary texts, both Canadian and foreign. While Samuel Beckett’s Endgame has scarcely lacked for criticism, its juxtaposition against Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (as well as verses from Isaiah and the tale of the maimed king from the Grail myth), shed valuable light on the idea of the profaned wilderness. McPherson’s readings of Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter and Nino Ricci’s Lives of the Saints illuminate the ancient idea of scapegoating, “a ritual offering [that] has lost its noblest central meanings and become a sign, a receptacle for anger and hatred.”

McPherson doesn’t limit herself to literature, bringing the same eye for underlying symbolic meanings to both significant world events (including the Holocaust and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11) and her own personal life. While it breaks little new critical ground, Ways of the Wilderness is an impressive study, drawing one of the oldest symbols into the modern day.