Heidi M. Willis
New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2016. 272 pages. $25.99.
At the age of twenty, Pete Fromm embarked on his own personal coming-of-age adventure, ditching the comfort of his dorm room and the stimulus of college classes to live alone for seven months in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. In his first memoir, the acclaimed Indian Creek Chronicles, he details his job babysitting salmon eggs during that bitter cold winter in Idaho, where survival was a battle equally against the elements and solitude.
Twenty-five years later, Fromm was offered the opportunity to live the adventure again. His newest book The Names of the Stars: A Life in the Wilds is ostensibly the sequel to Indian Creek Chronicles, following his month in 2004 caring for more fish eggs in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness. This time, though, he leaves behind something far more difficult to abandon than the ease of modern life: he leaves his wife and two young sons.
When the call comes asking Fromm to repeat his wilderness adventure, it’s obvious he longs to rediscover his survivalist roots.
After moving to Montana at seventeen, I’d spent years dreaming of mountain men and their lonely, manly feats, of finding a cabin too remote to find. . . . But instead I’d wound up in Great Falls, on the plains edged up against the spine of the Rockies, but not in the mountains themselves. . . . Our house was an eighty-year-old Craftsman bungalow on a street lined with elms. I walked Nolan and Aidan, a third-grader and a kindergartener, back and forth from Roosevelt Elementary every day. Wild man become mild man.
The struggle to take the job and leave his family for a month or to turn down the job is the first inkling we get that the true conflict of this book is not really about battling bears or surviving the elements. At the start, he tries to convince the Forest Service Ranger to allow him to take his sons, but liability wins. Only grown men allowed. In a heated debate with his wife, Rose, who encourages him to go, he asks what the point is if he can’t take the boys. “You can’t give up your whole life all the time,” she says. “This is part of you, too. It’s who you are. You need to do this.”
Of course he takes the job, but there is a bit of the feeling of Solomon splitting the baby. What should have been a triumphant return to his roots turns out to be the long ache for what he left behind. It’s clear that Fromm is a man built for the rough edges of life, but the tenderness of fatherhood seems to have taken even him by surprise. The ache of longing for his sons is palpable. He mourns missing their baseball games, sleeps on his son’s Batman pillow, sews them moccasins from deer hide, and saves the Jiffy Pop—his youngest’s favorite food—until he can barely breathe from missing them.
I slog on without them . . . wet and tired and alone in the wilderness. This is who you are. But, without them, is it who I want to be?
Unlike his other books, memoir and novels alike, The Names of the Stars does not follow an easy chronological path. Like the physical rivers he navigates, this story has its share of tributaries and eddies. While the long slog of caring for the eggs—surviving both the grizzlies and the boredom—keeps the story flow moving (and, at times, high with tension), there are chapters that take brief detours, filling in Fromm’s life from Indian Creek to here beneath the stars. Each chapter, from the early jobs as a lifeguard in Lake Mead, Nevada where he was unable to save a teenager from drowning to guiding tourists downriver through the Tetons and, occasionally off the grid, underscores how the untamed, unpredictable adventure of life is breath to his soul.
And then, somewhere in this, he managed to fall in love with a woman who is, at first, almost as wild as he is.
But life, as it tends to do, tugs Fromm toward civilization, first with Rose, then with the boys, and finally to his aging parents. As much as Fromm might long to answer that call of the land, he becomes more closely tethered to the tameness of civilization.
The short night, the warden’s eating-as-endurance event, the newness, the rain, the long, soggy slog, and, most of all, the smack in the face of solitude gang up on me, wearing me down as surely as a stick against a sidewalk. I knew I’d face this, was even expecting it, just not quite this hard emptiness of it all. I didn’t expect, with a single glance at an old Batman pillow, to find myself barely able to swallow, let alone breathe.
Despite the longing for his sons, he never loses the magical and almost other-worldly feeling of being in a place no other human inhabits. He watches the coyote pounce after prey, the elk swarm around him like water around a rock, the beavers thwacking their tails at him. In this region ripe with grizzlies, his heart-pounding encounters will make readers’ hearts pound as well. And when he hangs his hammock under the stars, the calm washes all else away.
An estuary is the area where a river meets the ocean, the fresh water spilling into the salt of the sea. For Fromm, it is the place where the wild life he has craved since he was young meets the now-settled life of a family man. While it’s clear Fromm enjoys the thrill of the wild and the quiet of nature, the rush of meeting danger on a daily basis is now tempered with the weight of being a father, of missing important moments in his sons’ lives, and the need to come home safely. While this memoir may be touted as “a story of wilderness and bears,” it is more honestly the story of everyone who has had to choose between two halves of their whole. It is both triumphant and melancholy, the realization that you might be able to have everything you want, but not always at the same time. The Names of the Stars is a coming-of-age book for adults; it is a tightrope walk between holding on to who you are and letting go a little for something you love even more.