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The Woman in the Woods
June 21, 2004
Letter for the BCA edition of Firethorn, used by permission
B
y Sarah Micklem

I began the story of Firethorn with a young woman in the forest, because that was how I first saw her. Long before I put anything on paper, before she had the name Firethorn, I imagined a woman who was ragged, hungry, almost feral, and also young, stubborn, and lonely.

I wrote a novel before I turned twenty that started with another young woman in a forest. The manuscript is in a dusty box somewhere, deservedly forgotten. But now I wonder about the persistent image of a woman in the wild, and why I kept returning to it.

When I was sixteen, I set out on a vision quest, an expedition founded on a smattering of facts and fancies about Native Americans. For three days I camped by myself in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State, fasting and waiting for my animal spirit guide to appear. It was early autumn, already cold. One night it snowed, and in the morning I saw an animal, something reddish and quick, running over the white ground. A weasel? A fox? If it was my spirit guide, it was no use to me. I couldn’t even recognize the animal. I didn’t know what it meant.

Perhaps that solitary visit to the mountains was like a grain of sand, an irritant around which stories accumulated. And perhaps my vision of the animal did have a meaning, for it taught me something about my own ignorance, and the folly of trying to appropriate a world of shared knowledge and beliefs about which I knew nothing.

The woman in the forest is after all a bit like me, somewhat ignorant, somewhat foolish, and yet she is as different as I could make her, for her world isn’t mine, though I created it. I wrote my way into her kingdom. I did not want to write about what I knew, but rather what I hoped to discover: Why did Firethorn flee to the Kingswood? How does she survive? What does she know, what does she believe? What life has she left behind, and what happens when she returns to live among people again?

Because of course Firethorn must leave the forest, or there’d be no story to tell. She leaves the Kingswood and her village too, to run off with a warrior on his way to join the King’s army. But at the core of her character remains something stubborn and solitary, the legacy of the woman in the wild.

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