The Wild Inside
- By Jamey Bradbury
- William Morrow
- 304 pp.
- Reviewed by Christine Baleshta
- March 30, 2019
An atmospheric, coming-of-age thriller set in the forests of Alaska.
“I learned in school that blood has a memory. It carries information that makes you who you are. That’s how my brother and me ended up with so much in common, we both carried inside us the things our parents’ blood remembered. Sharing what’s in the blood, that’s as close as you can be to another person.”
Novel, mystery, thriller tinged with a touch of horror: The Wild Inside is all of these. In her first book, Jamey Bradbury carefully balances genres to craft an intriguing drama set against the backdrop of the Iditarod and the Alaskan wilderness.
Seventeen-year-old Tracy Sue Petrikoff is a little rough around the edges. Angry and rebellious, she is expelled from school for beating up a classmate. Her mother has died, and her father, in an effort to control her, grounds Tracy, forbidding her from doing everything she loves: caring for their sled dogs, going out into the woods, hunting — and racing in the Iditarod.
For Tracy, this is a life-threatening sentence. Driven by an unrelenting hunger and facilitated by a feral skill at trapping, she doesn’t just crave being outdoors, she needs it.
“I had learned pretty quick that a couple days without going into the woods put me out of sorts…If I went too long without hunting, my belly ached something awful and my muscles went all trembly. I felt weak.”
Tracy has inherited these characteristics from her mother, whose death is shrouded in mystery. Their relationship is integral to the book as Bradbury discretely pieces together mother and daughter to reveal a supernatural trait that binds and burdens them:
“Some learning, I had got from books…The other kind of learning, you drink it in, too. It’s warm and it spreads through you, wakes up your muscles and sharpens your mind, and you can see clearly, not just with your eyes but with your whole self, and then you know what you didn’t before. How a squirrel plans its route from branch to branch. How a mouse will hear you before it ever sees you. How a snowshoe hare knows to run in a zigzag, not in a straight line, to confuse its predator.”
When her father isn’t watching, Tracy breaks for the woods to check her traps and is suddenly attacked by a stranger. Though she escapes, the stranger stumbles into the yard of their home a few days later, bleeding heavily from stab wounds.
Haunted by what she might have done, Tracy returns to the clearing where she was attacked and discovers a pack left behind containing enough money to enter the Iditarod. So begins a series of events that unravels Tracy’s life.
In steps Jesse, a boy about Tracy’s age, looking for work and bearing his own secrets. At first, Tracy is suspicious of him, seeing him as an intruder until she pries Jesse’s history from him and uncovers a connection between them — the stranger. As Tracy and Jesse’s affection for one another grows, Tracy’s fear of the stranger develops into obsession, leading to a tragic misjudgment.
Tracy’s actions may shock, anger, even repulse. In the end, though, she is just a young girl aching for her mother. She searches her memory, recalling conversations and conjuring her image, trying to understand what her mother gave to her:
“I didn’t know I was crying till a sob wrenched itself from me. I covered my face and wept, aching for her. Aching after her. She was just a few feet from me, close enough for me to ask her anything, but I didn’t have no more questions. I only wanted to tell her to stay.”
What does it mean to be wild? This question pulsates throughout The Wild Inside as tension builds and the plot twists and gyrates to an unpredictable ending. Narrated primarily in first person by Tracy, Bradbury chooses to let the story unfold through dialogue between the characters while leaving some details to the reader’s imagination.
There is barely any physical description of the characters outside of “Scott and me both with Mom’s dark hair, Dad’s brown eyes.” Brief descriptions of the landscape paint a black-and-white picture of Alaska, adding a sinister tone to the book.
Bradbury’s prose shines brightest when describing the exhilaration Tracy feels when she becomes part of someone she is close to:
“I took Su in and bounded down the snowy trail, and the delight that flooded my body was complete and overwhelming, pure, undiluted happiness. I felt the tug of the harness and saw no other dogs in front of me, felt the whole team watching as I led. I bolted my food, barely tasting it, and I scratched at my own ears, and I napped in front of the woodstove and in piles of my brothers and sisters and teammates. I watched white snow fall across the black-and-gray world and the frigid air sent a shot of electricity through me, and I howled, the only way to give voice to my want.”
Those anticipating an adventure novel about the Iditarod will have to find it elsewhere, but those who thrive on the unexpected won’t be disappointed. The Wild Inside is a compelling mystery and suspense-filled thriller that proves Jamey Bradbury is an exceptionally talented writer.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2018.]
Christine Baleshta is a writer living in Austin, Texas, who focuses on wildlife and the natural world.