Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild by Novella Carpenter

Back-to-basics urban farmer Novella Carpenter investigates family in her second contemplative memoir.

gone feral

When Novella Carpenter was 36, her father went missing. It turned out to be a false alarm, but the threat of losing him helped Novella realize that, if she was ever to get to know George Carpenter, she might be running out of time, since their relationship had been stuck somewhere between uneasy and estranged for years. Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild charts her journey home.

After a romantic meeting in 1969 San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, her parents embarked on an idealistic European tour before settling on a farm in Idaho in “voluntary poverty.” But the marriage ended when Novella and her sister were five and seven, and their mother moved them to Washington State; Novella didn’t see much of her father after that. Now, three decades later, she has a small urban farm in Oakland, Calif., which she documented in her memoir Farm City. When she and her boyfriend, Bill, decide to try to get pregnant, she wonders about her own genetic legacy. Breeding ducks, chickens and milk goats has taught her the importance of the stock line. In working to become a parent herself, after the scare of George going missing, she goes in search of her father, hoping to build the relationship they never had.

George is still scraping by near the Idaho farm where Novella was born. He’s a regular backwoods curmudgeon, making a meager living by logging and cutting firewood and sharing his cabin with wild animals. She hopes they’ll go fly-fishing, re-creating the romance of A River Runs Through It. Maybe they’ll forage for wild foods or he’ll teach her how to fell a tree perfectly. Instead, he rants about the devils that possess the old family farm and exhibits previously unnoticed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (the legacy of his service in the Korean War). Novella is disturbed, angered all over again at what she sees as his abandonment, and concerned about the genes she’ll pass on to a child, if she ever succeeds in getting pregnant.

Gone Feral is reflective, as Novella ponders the paradoxes of her upbringing–for example, the liberal hippie value system (hers and her mother’s) that rejects her father the mountain man–and wonders what it is she really wants for her own child. Traveling through the country and her own past teaches her about herself, her origins, and how to build a future that includes father as well as child.


This review originally ran in the May 20, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 5 babies.

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