This novel is a coming-of-age story in the most startling of senses. In Hungry for the World, Kim Barnes attempts to reconcile her Baptist upbringing with her rebellious young adult life. In this non-fiction narrative, Barnes retells her chilling past as the free-spirited daughter of a lumberjack. Her life is divided into quarters: her innocent life growing up in the forest, her unhappy years as a young girl in the Baptist church, and her independent teens and twenties attached to possessive boyfriends. Barnes’ memoir is vivid, both a warning to parents of young girls and a release of her past.
In the first quarter of the novel, Barnes attempts to reconcile the freedom of her youth living in the woods with the stifling religious community she must live within. Barnes captures her childhood beautifully. Her life in the forest made sense. It could be lonely, but it was consistent and one’s place in life was sure. They lived in the forest with the animals that provided nourishment for them and had the same routine every day. Her family even shared a bed, a closeness that provided safety and comfort for a young child. Even then, when her innocence was still fresh and she was not yet jaded by society, Barnes writes that it was her duty “to honor the man’s place with the offering of my hands and body. Here is this face; kiss it. Here is this food; eat.” And yet, Kim still dreamed of becoming a provider like her father. She wished to be out there in the woods with the men rather than inside with the women awaiting a man’s return. The forest provided her with a “simple existence.” Except for a few other logging families, they were alone and away from the frightful news of wars and communism. Kim’s innocence was left behind in this forest:
By the time I was thirteen I would have forgotten the small pleasures of discovery, my world used up and ugly. By then I would have come to understand that it was Eve who desired the fruit and its store of hidden knowledge, Eve who damned us all from the Garden. Years away from that child sleeping in her mother’s arms, I would enter into my young woman’s life knowing these two things: by my gender I was cursed, and my mind would destroy me.
Kim’s life after they moved out of the forest is filled with uncertainty. Kim no longer understood her mother. As a reader, one can see her mother’s unconditional obedience as a sign of the times. She was a woman living in a conservative town. She was not free-spirited enough to be without a man, but she still had her own hopes and dreams. Kim’s mother had become tired of living in the forest so far away from the close friend’s and family she grew up with. She longed for structure and a small town life, and she found this within the church:
As a woman she must compensate for the flaw of her gender by extreme modesty. Her hair was her glory and could not be shorn. For a woman, to don pants mocked the male’s superior station. Her arms must be covered, her shoulders, her knees – any part of her that might entice, intrigue, attract, cause another to sin. Silence was her virtue.”
This image of her mother as a sinful, pious woman did not make sense to Kim. Her mother had run off with her father at sixteen. Young and in love, she retreated into the forest with a man she barely knew. Now, this “youthful courage” had died. Her mother has found order and peace within the church’s structure. Kim’s father eventually follows in his wife’s footsteps, bowing his allegiance to God and taking his place as the ruler of the household. Kim does not find the same solitude. The stringent rules of the church only cause her to rebel more. Where before her and her father had a wonderful relationship, one where she could speak her mind and have a discussion with him, now he shunned her. She was his sinful daughter who must remain silent and obedient, and he was her father who must control her however he could. Kim resisted his domineering nature and rebelled.
What followed were Kim’s attempts to resist her father’s rules, but in doing so she only found safety in other men’s arms. These chapters are painful for me as an outsider because it is simple to understand the mistakes that Kim is making but difficult to see how she could make other choices. Kim seeks out controlling men that are like her father, but without his kindness and intellectual solitude. She holds onto to these men to escape her father without realizing that she is becoming passive – exactly what she wished to avoid. But within the structure that Kim grew up with, how could she expect anything more as a woman? She understood that as a woman she must be the giver and her husband the taker. These men take from her her independence and free spirit, and leave her with an emptiness, a longing to give more of herself to them. Even as they rape her and beat her she holds on to them tightly, hoping to be able to provide them with what they need. She internalizes the words of Christ to always serve these men. No matter how they use her, she always returns to them, forgiving and compassionate. Some of these men were young and did not understand their cruelty, while others knew exactly how to handle a woman roughly and strike her with fear. As a reader, I wanted Kim to escape, break free from these men, but she never learned to break free. She learned to follow direction, keep her mouth shut and her face pretty. Through these chapters, I ached for Kim to simply wake up from the melodic nightmare.
Eventually she is able to crawl away, broken and bruised, and find solitude again by making frequent trips to the forest:
From that place in the woods where the fires burned, where my father returned to us weary and watchful, his clothes smelling like coals from the furnace, I come to this bend in the river, where the water runs deep, where, in spring and fall, the last steelhead and salmon nose into stone and anchor themselves to rest. It is here that I take up my journey, chart my course by that true North Star, and begin once again to believe.
This memoir stands a warning of the dangers of confining young girls. Kim does not become pious and obedient to her father’s will, but rather resists him at every turn and seeks out men who are even more dangerously controlling. Her story is an example of why it is hazardous to raise young girls to believe that they are only objects for men and that their voices do not matter. Barnes stands as a testament to the fact that we must raise girls to know that their voices do matter and that they must kindle the fire that burns within them, not stifle it out.
Kim Barnes is an American poet, writer, professor, and editor. She has written two memoirs and three novels: In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country (1996), Hungry for the World (2000), Finding Caruso (2003), A Country Called Home (2008), and In the Kingdom of Men (2012). Barnes has been the recipient of two grants from the Idaho Commission on the Arts. She received the PEN/Jerard fellowship given to an emerging writer of nonfiction, and in 1997 she won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award for In the Wilderness. She was also a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and the Quality Paperback Book Club’s New Visions Award for In the Wilderness. She lives in Idaho with her husband and three children, frequently making trips into the forest.