Ways of the Wilderness: A Personal Journey Through Religion and Literature


200 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 2-89507-405-4
DDC 809'.9332





Reviewed by W.J. Keith

W.J. Keith is a retired professor of English at the University of Toronto and author A Sense of Style: Studies in the Art of Fiction in English-Speaking Canada.


This book tackles the enormous subject of contemporary responses to, and
need for, wilderness—“wilderness” being interpreted both literally
and metaphorically to include the rural and the urban, the moral and the
psychological. Its importance derives from the way in which it
identifies the urgent spiritual problems facing human beings in the 21st

Anne McPherson has undertaken advanced work in both English and
religious studies at the university level, but this is a deeply personal
rather than a dryly academic book. Concerned about the secularization of
the modern world and the resultant decline in religious practice and any
awareness of the sacred, yet dissatisfied with the performance of
current clergy and literary critics, she attempts to confront the modern
sense of rootlessness at an intelligent but non-sectarian level.

Ways of the Wilderness is difficult to categorize. The first chapter,
“The Biblical Wilderness,” suggests religious commentary, but
McPherson’s texts are not primarily religious. Instead, they are drawn
from modern literature, by writers ranging from Samuel Beckett, Eugиne
Ionesco, Flannery O’Connor, and Philip Roth to W.O. Mitchell,
Gabrielle Roy, Rudy Wiebe, and Margaret Atwood. Moreover, they are
continually related to her own experience.

All this is admirable, but I have to confess to being disappointed at
the result. Frankly, McPherson promises more that she delivers. In the
chapter on Holocaust literature, for example, she never explains why so
many educated contemporary Jews retain their faith in a God whom she
dismisses as unworthy, nor does she consider the propriety of creating
fiction out of the all-too-actual sufferings in the death camps. In
addition, her discussion of contemporary writers (often in an
inappropriately slangy style) stops at the level of plot and theme. I
get the uneasy feeling that she is using these texts as material for
secular sermons.

The “amateur” (“ordinary folk like me”) quality of this book is
initially endearing; as I read on, however, I found it ultimately
frustrating. A pity, since a truly probing book on the subject is
desperately needed.


McPherson, Anne., “Ways of the Wilderness: A Personal Journey Through Religion and Literature,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 14, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/17885.