Mindy McGinnis’s YA survival novel, Be Not Far From Me, centers on the character of Ashley Hawkins, a working-class, high school girl growing up in Tennessee with her single father. While on a camping trip with a group of friends, Ashley wakes in the middle of the night to find her boyfriend, Duke, cheating on her. Enraged, hurt, and half-drunk, Ashley runs off-trail and tumbles downhill. She wakes the next morning, lost and alone in the Appalachian woods, with no phone, no shoes, and a smashed foot.
If you’re interested in reading this book, I’m going to put my official review at the bottom of this post. Feel free to skip to the end. What I wanted to write about here was something a little more personal. You see, for the past several months, I’ve been undergoing a book fast, of sorts. Although I read plenty of articles, websites, and even a couple of non-fiction books, the only fiction I’ve read since 2021 has been my own writing. Be Not Far From Me is the book that ended my reading drought, and I want to examine why that is and whether I’ll be able to read more regularly in the future.
The Unintentional Fast
I stopped reading fiction in October 2020, and I cannot say why, except that, all of a sudden, the desire drained from me. For someone who feels her primary purpose in life is to write novels, this was concerning, to say the least. I have been struggling to figure out why my tastes suddenly changed and how to recapture the love of reading.
I know that October 2020 was not really the best time in my life. We were about 6 months into the COVID pandemic, and that isolation was starting to take a toll. In Southern California, where I lived, wildfires caused smoke to fill the sky and sunlight to filter through the ash in an eerie shade of yellow. I had just finished writing and publishing Company: A Novel of a Ghost and an Imaginary Friend, but as per usual, my efforts received little attention, and I had no means of celebrating the book, even with a private party of friends and family. I felt burned out, in more ways than one.
And then I read Song of Years by Bess Streeter Aldrich, a book published in 1939, which takes place in Iowa in the 1850s and 1860s. I thought it was going to be comforting pioneering fiction, much like the Little House on the Prairie books I read as a kid. In some ways, it was, but the more I read, the more it laid bare cultural values that I had absorbed from a young age, some of which were beginning to now seem toxic to me. What really tipped me over the edge was watching a character named Emily, a devoted, hard-working daughter who was deemed unattractive due to an abundance of freckles, get ignored by men while her more flighty, pretty sisters marry. At the end of the book, the author shows the graves of the family, with all the sisters being the “beloved wife of…” so-and-so, before concluding, “Only Emily who stayed at home to help the folks was no one’s beloved” (emphasis added).
This line hurt me more than I can say, given that I am, myself, currently an unmarried woman in her thirties who has also chosen to stay home and care for others. But this line alone wouldn’t have been so bad, if I hadn’t realized how often its sentiment had been echoed to me: if you are a woman and you are unattractive, you will never be loved. I remember hearing this message blatantly stated in classic books such as The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (the hard-working and devoted first wife’s dying cries are: “I’m so ugly, no one can love me,” and her husband silently agrees). In a science fiction novel by a famous author (I can’t remember the title or name), a girl who is brilliant but ugly ended up with a non-corporeal space entity, because, as one of her male colleague points out, no man on earth could possibly love her.
I read both books before I was 18, and it hurt. It was terrible notion, a notion I rejected to the core of my being—but a notion part of me assumed was true. It didn’t matter if you were smart or hard-working or devoted—if you were a woman and you weren’t beautiful, no one would love you. Not romantically, at least. I considered myself smart, hard-working, and devoted—but not beautiful.
Reflecting on that idea at age 35, it was a shock—a shock that I had absorbed this toxic message from books, and not just any old trashy novel, but what was considered to be classic literature. Books were supposed to inspire me, make me think I could do anything. Instead, they had torn at my personhood, at my femininity; they had hurt me.
After that, I didn’t want to read anymore. And so, for a long time afterward, I didn’t.
My supposedly unlimited data plan had somehow run out of data. My phone informed me, I’d be charged $15 for every gigabyte consumed. I didn’t know how much a gigabyte was, and I didn’t care. I was not paying. I turned off my cellular data.
This wouldn’t have made a difference, if I were at home and connected to the wifi. But I was not at home. I was on vacation with my mom and aunt at Solvang, a touristy Danish town near the coast of California. The timeshare had the gall to charge us for wifi. I wasn’t about to pay, so for the next 4 days, I had no connection to the Internet. And Solvang, while lovely, is a town that opens at 9:00 and closes at 4:00, which left me with lots of free time and very little in the way of entertainment.
But the books I downloaded on my Kindle app were available.
I had bought Be Not Far From Me in the summer of 2020, right before my book fast wiped out my interest in reading. It was not the only book I had on my Kindle, but out of all of them, it was the only one that really called to me. Perhaps because it was a primal, simple story of survival: no complicated society to maneuver through, just a girl in nature. Maybe I chose it because it was the story I needed to hear.
(Warning: Minor Spoilers for the First Half of the Book.)
I mentioned earlier that one of the things that hit at me the hardest in “classic” books is being told that a woman’s capacity for being loved is tied to her looks, so maybe that’s why this story connected to me so quickly. In Be Not Far From Me, Ashley, the main character, is portrayed as a tomboy. Whether beautiful or not, she doesn’t play up her looks or act feminine or sexy. And this becomes important when her boyfriend Duke’s, ex-girlfriend, Natalie, crashes their group’s camping trip. Natalie is hot and curvy and flirtatious. She is everything Ashley is not. And in the space of a few hours, Duke winds up cheating on Ashley. And I don’t mean a kiss, either. No, Duke and Natalie are full on going at it.
Which seems to be yet another confirmation of the maxim that men just want women who are beautiful. Or sexy. Ashley rightly punches Duke in the face. She is hurt by this betrayal; far worse, she is hurt by all the “good things” the betrayal has taken from her, dreams of a brighter future. But this is just the catalyst for Ashley’s journey. In her efforts to get away from Duke, she falls off a ledge and smashes her foot bloody.
Now, she’s lost in the woods. She can’t run; she can barely walk. This is bad, but it gets worse when Ashley realizes that a gash on her toe has become infected. She’s going to need to cut off part of her foot if she wants to survive. This is gruesome purely on a surface level—I can’t even fathom the pain and the fear of cutting off a piece of your body. But Ashley is a cross-country runner. Flashbacks tell of her struggle to run, how she overcame the pain through her own stubborn tenacity, and how she emerged as an athlete good enough to get a scholarship. Running is her triumph, her future, her ticket out of this impoverished life. She must viciously remove this part of her life—or she will die.
On an internal level, I related to Ashley’s inner turmoil. Unable to move about easily, she has plenty of stillness to contemplate the course of her life and try to process the pain of loss. Myself, I’ve been muddling through my life, filled with uncertainty, and trying to figure out what I’m living for. For me, though, the stakes are much lower. I’m not dealing with an urgent, life-or-death situation. I’ve thought about what it means to let go of dreams and habits; I haven’t ever had to consider losing a part of my body. Sometimes, I really don’t know if I would survive, given these extreme circumstances. I’m less impulsive than Ashley but also less tenacious. She fights to live. Do I?
An Uncertain Future
Reading Be Not Far From Me was an emotional and overall positive experience. It did not leave me weeping tears of bittersweet epiphany, like some of my favorite novels have done, but it didn’t hurt me, either. I felt refreshed and entertained and contemplative—which is what I want from a reading experience. I was happy enough that I even bought a book at Solvang’s Book Loft and began reading it during the car ride home.
But it’s not as though all my reading woes have been solved. I’m still not even sure what they all are.
Only a few years ago, I would go to a bookstore or a library, grab any book that caught my attention, lug my stack of books to a table, go back for more, and sit for at least an hour, sorting through them, until I had triumphantly selected the lucky few books I intended to take home. Now I go to a bookstore, and nothing sparks my interest. I anemically read back covers and before restoring books to their place on the shelf.
What has happened to me? Is it the pandemic, narrowing down the abundance of life to a few habits and a tight circle of friends? Is the force of technology and media distracting me and wearing down my attention? Is it something that has happened inside of me, a mixture of disillusionment and reprioritizing which has changed my inner desires? Is this change bad?
I still don’t know.
That idea of an “unattractive” woman being romantically unloved is not fully resolved in Be Not Far From Me—and it’s not fully resolved in me. I know my own worth—I’ve always known it. That’s never been the issue. The issue is whether anyone else sees it—whether society sees it. Ashley goes on an incredible journey, but she goes on it alone. It used to be that books were my guides and companions on the road of life. But now, I’m just not sure.
Book Review of Be Not Far From Me
Be Not Far From Me is a survival novel in the purest sense: it is about summoning the will to move forward under imposing, almost hopeless circumstances, and making choices that most of us, safe and warm in our homes, would never have to make. However, as anyone who’s watched an episode or two of “Survivorman” might realize, surviving isn’t exactly an action-packed adventure, but rather a slow process of finding food, making shelter, and moving forward, one step at a time. Anyone expecting bear attacks, tumbling through rapids, or other high-octane wilderness thrills, may be disappointed. The real threats to Ashley are starvation and infection.
That said, I loved this novel because it was so realistic and because it focused more on Ashley’s thoughts and feelings, rather than on plot and action. Ashley carries a lot of pain, from her boyfriend’s recent betrayal, to her mother abandoning her as a child, to the disappearance of her crush and mentor, a young man named Davey Beet, who ventured into these same woods and never returned. This is a journey through heartbreak and loss as much as it is a journey through the woods. I related to Ashley quite a bit, even though her personality is opposite of mine. Because Be Not Far From Me is written from a close first-person point of view, I could understand Ashley’s thoughts very clearly, feel her pain, and release it as if it were my own.
One of the… I don’t want to say problems… but a potential issue of the book is that some of the things that Ashley finds to aid her survival or prompt her internal journey may come across as a bit too convenient. Toward the end, it started to strain my credulity. Although I really enjoyed the middle section of the book, the beginning was a little slow and the ending seemed a little flat. It was a fine, realistic, and bittersweet ending, but it didn’t have a crescendo or an epiphany. It just… ended.
On the whole, I’d say that Be Not Far From Me is a grounded, beautifully written, and moving novel. I found it gripping enough to keep me reading until the end, and I was satisfied by the story. Be Not Far From Me contains quite a bit of cursing, some sexual situations (nothing graphic), and gore due to survival situations, including things that might make a person with a sensitive stomach squeamish. I, personally, didn’t find anything offensive to my pallet, but the book is definitely geared more toward older teen and adults.