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A History of Wild Places


A History of Wild Places

Shea Ernshaw makes her adult fiction debut with A HISTORY OF WILD PLACES, a lush and atmospheric novel about the psychology of cults and the lure of dark, hidden places where one can disappear.

Founded in the 1970s, the community of Pastoral has been hidden away in a remote commune, living only on what they can make, grow or kill for themselves. Though some members remember the outside world from their childhoods, the majority of Pastoral has never stepped foot outside the border of their community. For one thing, they have everything they need anyway, but there’s another, more terrifying element keeping them in: elm pox, a highly contagious, deathly illness brought on by sick trees just outside of the border, marked by the seeping, bleeding, rotten black blood of its sufferers. Anyone who steps foot outside has the potential not only to catch the rot themselves, but to carry it into the commune and cause the deaths of their loved ones and neighbors.

"For its vivid, atmospheric setting and ripped-from-the-headlines cult themes [A HISTORY OF WILD PLACES] is steeped in magic, infused with a haunting hint of the paranormal that only emphasizes the dark mystery and horrifyingly real cult at its center."

Theo, a lifelong member of Pastoral, knows all of this, yet he cannot help but wonder what really lies beyond the border. For almost a year, he has used his role as a night guardsman to walk silently, secretly down the road leading out of Pastoral --- first only a few feet at a time, now nearly to the end of the road, where a simple turn will take him past everything he has ever known. One night, while taking his forbidden walk, he finds an abandoned truck covered in dead leaves. Inside is a photograph of a beautiful woman and the name “Maggie St. James” on the back, along with a wallet belonging to a Travis Wren.

Over a year earlier, in the outside world, Travis was on the hunt for a missing woman. Blessed (or cursed?) with a mysterious gift that enables him to locate missing people using only a single object of theirs, he was hired by Maggie's family to find their daughter. A notorious and acclaimed author of dark children’s fairy tales, Maggie disappeared after a scandal surrounding her books that resulted in the death of a child. As Travis tracks her using a charm from her favorite necklace, he learns about Pastoral and her interest in finding the forgotten commune…and quickly realizes that she knew exactly where she was going when she walked into the woods five years earlier, never to be seen again.

Now, Maggie and Travis have both disappeared, and it seems that only Theo is aware that outsiders came close --- dangerously close --- to Pastoral’s center. But when he confides in his wife, Calla, and her blind but all-seeing sister, Bee, he learns that Bee remembers Travis. In fact, she claims that he was hiding in their own farmhouse for a spell. Despite her ability to see through lies, sense a newborn’s heartbeat and smell when a new couple is in love, she cannot seem to recall where Travis went or how he ended up in their home. With the walls closing in on Pastoral, and Theo growing more and more suspicious of their leader, Levi, it comes down to him, Calla and Bee to track the disappearances of two outsiders who were drawn to Pastoral…and the dangers lurking within.

As a fan of Shea Ernshaw’s young adult fiction, I was immediately drawn to A HISTORY OF WILD PLACES and its premise based in dark fairy tales, visions and hidden communes. I am delighted to say that once again she did not disappoint. For its vivid, atmospheric setting and ripped-from-the-headlines cult themes, it is steeped in magic, infused with a haunting hint of the paranormal that only emphasizes the dark mystery and horrifyingly real cult at its center. This is a difficult novel to label: Ernshaw writes mystery as well as she writes thriller elements and equally as well as she writes dark, alluring magic. The book includes all of that and more.

Where Ernshaw really shines, though, is in her storytelling. From quiet, questioning Theo; anxious, brainwashed Calla; and shockingly observant Bee, each of these protagonists is in the middle of a great dilemma of character, faith and future. The way that she unravels and spins each of their arcs is masterful, absorbing, and utterly raw and human. On top of that, she knows how to keep readers turning pages, ending each chapter on a stunning cliffhanger and cadenced, powerful prose that guides you through as seamlessly as reading a classic fairy tale.

Perfect for readers of Miranda Beverly-Whittemore's FIERCE LITTLE THING, Courtney Summers' THE PROJECT and even fantasies like Ava Reid's THE WOLF AND THE WOODSMAN, A HISTORY OF WILD PLACES is a truly original story from a writer at the top of her game that speaks to the dark, hidden places in all of us.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on December 17, 2021

A History of Wild Places
by Shea Ernshaw