We all have our favorite villains. The brilliant schemer who outmaneuvers even the cleverest detective, the fugitive hiding in plain sight. The accidental criminal, the spurned lover pushed right over the edge. Lately, I’ve been finding myself in awe of a different kind of foe: nature. Powerful, unpredictable. You can’t reason with it. The magnitude of that conflict is what inspired my latest novel, The Liar’s Child, in which a woman in witness protection is forced to risk everything in the face of an advancing hurricane. Here are nine books pitting woman against nature I couldn’t put down.
The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve
Shreve opens her novel on the rocky shores of Maine, where 23-year-old Grace Holland lives with her husband and two young children. It’s 1947, and America is still reeling from World War II. Following a long drought, wildfires break out, and move with great speed toward Grace’s hometown. The men go off to fight the blaze, leaving the women and children behind. Smoke awakens Grace late that night. She gathers her children and runs down to the icy ocean to escape the flames devouring everything in their path. Shreve’s language is compelling and lyrical, and her storytelling is unparalleled.
The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne
From Dionne’s opening words, you know you’re in the hands of a gifted novelist. On the surface, Helena Pelletier is the happily married mother of two little girls. Even her own husband doesn’t know the truth about her upbringing. But when her father escapes from the maximum-security prison a mere thirty miles from her home, Helena can’t hide any longer. Knowing her father’s coming for her, she enters the Michigan swamp, determined to find him before he finds her. Here, nature is both an ally and an enemy, and Helena has to use the hunting and tracking skills her father taught her as a child in order to survive.
Breaking Wild by Diane Les Becquets
Told in spare, beautiful prose that rings with absolute authenticity, Les Becquets’ debut follows two women—one lost, and the other searching for her—battling the Colorado wilderness after a hunting trip goes awry. An early snowfall makes everything more challenging, from spotting tracks to sheer survival, but the real genius of Becquets’ thriller lies in how the accumulating snow echoes the many truths the women have concealed within themselves.
The Possible World by Liese O’Halloran Schwarz
At the heart of this tremendous, genre-spanning multi-generational novel is the devastating hurricane of 1938 and Clare, one of three narrators of the book. She tells her story, with all of its dark and terrible secrets, in 2018 as she approaches her hundredth birthday. Schwarz’s ability to bring character and scene into full dimension is extraordinary, and we are with Clare every step of the way through the storm and its aftermath. There are many surprising twists in this novel, and when Clare finally reveals the truth about what happened that fateful day, the payoff is unbelievably satisfying.
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
The heroine in Jesmyn Ward’s gorgeously written, National Book Award-winning novel is also about to have her life torn apart by a hurricane. The setting is coastal Mississippi, and the main character is Esch, a motherless pregnant teenager charged with protecting her three brothers. As uneasy warnings begin to swirl about an impending storm, we follow Esch and her family, unprepared on every level to protect themselves against the tragedy we now know as Hurricane Katrina. A powerful story, in which the lingering message is one of hope.
In Wilderness by Diane Thomas
In Wilderness is the story of a woman who takes herself deep into the Appalachian mountains—dragging her only supplies behind her on a sleeping bag—to surrender to the deep grief following the loss of a child. The year is 1966, and the protagonist is Katherine Reid, advertising executive. The mountains close around her and she is alone—or is she? Thomas’ singular gift lies in portraying Reid’s struggle against the elements even as she wages her own internal war, resulting in the most unlikely of love stories.
Wicked River by Jenny Milchman
Milchman knows how to use nature as a character. In Wicked River, she’s at the top of her game. We set out with Natalie Larson, a young woman on her honeymoon, canoeing into Adirondack Park, six million acres of untamed forest. Large enough to fit six national parks inside. Large enough to hide a multitude of evils. As Natalie makes her way down the river with her new husband, she begins to suspect they may not be alone. The twisting, rushing river turns out to be a murky mirror of all they don’t yet know about each other—but will have to learn in order to make it out alive.
Firestorm by Nevada Barr
No list of woman versus nature novels would be complete without Nevada Barr’s ground-breaking mystery series featuring U.S. Park Ranger Anna Pigeon. Although each novel takes place in a different state park, Pigeon must always conquer the wild in her quest for the killer. One particular standout in the series is Firestorm, in which Pigeon battles a California wildfire. The scene in which Pigeon hunkers down as flames sweep over and around her is absolutely heart-stopping, and is a testament to Barr’s skill in portraying nature as a living, breathing force.
The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Finally, if you’re reading with your children, The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, is a long-time personal favorite of mine. It’s the true story of the Ingalls family, huddled in a log cabin in the late 1800s as blizzards rage around them, packing snow against the door and windows, and cutting them off from the world. I will never forget the claustrophobia Wilder conjures, and the helpless feeling of young Laura herself, determined to keep up her spirits, and believe—despite every evidence to the contrary—that spring will eventually arrive and set her family free.