Wilderness Tips (1991)

© Copyright Doubleday Canada Limited
© Copyright Doubleday Canada Limited

“Follow the yellow brick road
You’re off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz”

Much like the Land of Oz, works of fiction often seem limitless in possibilities. They, after all, each present a universe of their own or rather a fraction of it, but while the real world largely consists of random events beyond our control, imaginary ones are built upon conscious decisions. A story ends where it does because its writer has chosen so. In other words, a work of fiction guides us toward its finale.

Take, for example, the fifth tale in Margaret Atwood’s Wilderness Tips. “Death by Landscape” tells of a widowed mother, Lois, reminiscing about her youth with her friend Lucy at Camp Manitou while contemplating her art collection. Its explicit depictions of landscapes and the narrator’s retrospective point of view foreshadow its ending, defining it as an engaging and tender emotional experience instead of a ghastly haunting (amongst other possibilities). Fair warning: I do spoil minor elements of the short story to make my point. The good news is you’ve got nine others to discover unencumbered by my ramblings.

The first element to set our expectations in this direction is, of course, the title. “Death by Landscape” uses as its title an aspect of the story that is crucial to its telling but not to its plot. The presence of the word “landscape” incites us to pay close attention to its mention throughout the narrative. They first encounter the notion in the form of Lois’ paintings. The latter all feature Canadian landscapes, the type of surroundings that would remind Lois of Camp Manitou. In fact, four of the six painters mentioned (A.Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris, Arthur Lismer, and J. E. H. MacDonald) were part of the Group of Seven, artists determined to define Canadian art by portraying the nation’s wilderness.

Landscape is later brought up near the story’s climax with the depiction of the view at Lookout Point: “It’s a lookout all right, a sheer drop to the lake and a long view over the water.” Again, the notion of landscape alerts us to the moment’s importance, and its relationship to the paintings is made more apparent. It’s as if pieces of a puzzle were slowly being disclosed, causing us to long increasingly for a resolution.

The connection between the tragedy at Camp Manitou and Lois’ art pieces is finally explained at the end of the story: “every one of them is a picture of Lucy. You can’t see her exactly, but she’s there, behind the pink stone island or the one behind that.” This revelation does not come as a surprise but rather as a long awaited answer. Its foreshadowing prompts us to pay close attention to this conclusion and to meditate on its significance.

While the continuous references to landscape do arouse our interest and curiosity, Lois’ sensitive point of view is what gives the story’s conclusion its gentle meaning. Though narrated in the third person, “Death by Landscape” is entirely filtered through Lois’ perspective, her honest and almost innocent accounts of traumatic events. Atwood mostly uses the past tense, evoking the point of view of someone who has been greatly wounded by what is to come: “Out on the lake there were two loons, calling to each other in their insane, mournful voices. At the time it did not sound like grief. It was just background.”

Decades after the fact, Lois still carries the weight of what happened at Camp Manitou. She “can remember everything, every detail.” To emphasize this notion, the narrative switches to present tense when the story reaches her final summer with Lucy: “this year Lucy is different again.” The summer’s account is frequently interrupted as her distress gets ahead of her recollection: “Was there anything important that would provide some sort of reason or clue to what happened next?”

Privy to her every thought, we can easily empathize with Lois: the naïveté of her childhood persona is very endearing, and her pain as an adult is nearly impossible to ignore. When the story reaches its conclusion, it’s about Lois that we care. Lucy, whose appearances are always in function to Lois, has already become a secondary concern, her case deemed hopeless. What could have been interpreted as the apparition of Lucy’s ghost is understood as a manifestation of Lois’ guilt and sorrow because we, the readers, have been driven to feel her pain: “Everyone has to be somewhere, and this is where Lucy is. She is in Lois’ apartment, in the holes that open inwards on the wall, not like windows but like doors. She is here. She is entirely alive.”

The efficiency of this conclusion, or any other, is entirely dependent on our expectations, interest, and affection for the story and its characters. By hooking us with a cryptic notion of landscape and by inviting us to share the viewpoint of a particularly gentle and sympathetic character, Margaret Atwood’s “Death by Landscape” gives its ending a moving significance. Nothing is left at random. The work of fiction is a series of calculated decisions that carefully leads the readers toward its ending, crafting its own yellow brick road for us to follow.

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Editor in Chief / Movie Critic: When he started this site, Dimitri never thought he'd be writing blurbs about himself in the third person. In his other life, he works as a writer, translator, and editor for various publications in print and online. His motto is, "Have pen, will travel."