The thinness of what we call “civilization” is a recurring theme of Margaret Atwood’s work, and Wilderness Tips is a collection of short stories exploring this theme from several different perspectives. A woman mails her removed tumor to her ex-lover’s wife, going against what would be the civilized thing to do, while in another story a young camper disappears on a canoeing trip, forcing the camp’s administrators to place blame as a way of maintaining order. Perhaps the most thought-provoking story, though, is the one placed literally at the book’s center, Uncles. Superficially this seems to be a story about how women’s liberation has threatened the old order established by men–and feminism is also a recurring theme of Atwood’s work. In fact Atwood is up to something more complicated in the story of Susanna, whose father died in World War II so that she never knew him. Instead she’s raised by her single mother and fostered by three uncles–over the objections of her aunts. Then, taking a career in journalism, she’s mentored by an older man named Percy. But then she passes him, getting first a radio show then a television show. Stuck at the same small local paper, Percy gets a small amount of national notoriety–and revenge–by writing an article attacking her as the “dragon lady”. She survives the attack, but her mentor’s resentment stings and takes her back to her feelings about her father. She has to deal with her own Oedipal conflict, confronting the fact that, while the younger generation must eventually supplant the older, the older generation will hate the younger generation for it. In fact the real problem is that Percy has never grown up, but Susanna doesn’t see it this way. She takes Percy’s betrayal personally, and dreams of her father “staring at her with hate.”
Stylistically Atwood’s stories are simple and straightforward, but philosophically they’re anything but simple. She often compresses whole lives, or several decades of a life into a few pages, allowing her to focus on the circumstances that led her characters to where they are. It’s very revealing of something at work in the lives of most of us. We may wonder how we ended up where we are, but it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees.