A little girl gets lost alone in the woods. But for better or worse, no one is ever really alone…

The world had teeth and it could bite you with them any time it wanted. Trisha McFarland discovered that when she was nine years old.

Sounds like Cujo, doesn’t it? Sometimes bad things happen and it’s nobody’s fault, just the way of the world. Sometimes all the courage and willpower in the world isn’t enough to save you.

And sometimes it is.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon

Along with the Dark Tower series, this unique little book was my favorite of the new-to-me King books I read this year. While it has a lot of aspects that I like about King in addition to tropes I like in general, it’s different from his other books I’ve read (much pithier, for one thing) and a bit sui generis overall.

If you read survival memoirs, you’ll notice that many real people who got lost in the wild, in addition to their suffering and fear and physical breakdown, also had some kind of transcendent or spiritual experience. In between periods of misery and despair, they came to understand themselves, the natural world, and some kind of greater force in a way which felt deeply and lastingly important to them, though many say that no attempt at description can convey what it was really like. King delves into this phenomenon, giving the book an atmosphere at once delicate and powerful, full of realistic and suspenseful wilderness details balanced with a satisfyingly ambiguous exploration of that which is inherently unknowable and indescribable.

Nine-year-old Trisha goes with her mother and older brother for a short hike on the Appalachian Trail. When she steps off the path for a pee break, she realizes that she’s fallen behind and tries to take a short cut to catch up with them. One easy-to-make mistake leads to another, and Trisha is soon lost in the woods. Very, very lost.

That’s the entire book: the extraordinary journey of an ordinary girl. But Trisha is extraordinary too, in the way that anyone may become if they hit the exact right— or wrong— circumstances to bring out their full potential, whether to do right or wrong or simply endure.

If you’ve been following my King reviews and thinking, “Man, these books sound interesting, but so dark! Does he ever write anything that wouldn’t traumatize me if I read it?” Unless you’re very sensitive to children in danger, this could be the one.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is way more emotionally realistic (and so harrowing) than something like Hatchet, but it’s more like that than it is like Carrie, and it’s a lot less traumatizing, to me anyway, than Julie of the Wolves. (No rape, no deaths of sympathic animals.) It’s a character and theme-driven adventure/survival novel with ambiguous fantasy elements and some scary moments, not a horror novel. There’s some snippets of Trisha’s family freaking out, but they get little page time. Trisha suffers, but she’s also very resilient. [If you just want to know if she survives, rot13.com for the answer: Vg’f n pybfr pnyy ohg fur qbrf, naq irel gevhzcunagyl ng gung.]

Trisha has no special woodsy knowledge. Brian from Hatchet she’s not. Very unusually for a wilderness survival novel with a child hero, Trisha doesn’t do anything that a smart and resourceful but untrained kid couldn’t plausibly have done. The average kid wouldn’t have survived as long as she did, but that’s just statistics. She doesn’t build her own snowshoes, start fires with flint, befriend wolves, or trap rabbits. She eats stuff she finds, she makes a primitive lean-to from fallen branches, and she walks. And walks. No matter how bad things get, she doesn’t stop.

She does it all with nothing but a little bit of food and water, plus her Walkman, which picks up the broadcast of a Red Sox game in which her favorite baseball player, Tom Gordon, is playing. As she gets more and more lost, and is forced to reach deeper and deeper into her mind and body and soul to survive, she calls upon others to help her out: her memories of her family and her parentally disapproved-of friend Pepsi Robichaud, who could only be considered a bad influence if you’re nine and sheltered, her crush and idol Tom Gordon, and various conceptions of God or Godlike forces.

As time goes on, Tom Gordon becomes Trisha’s imaginary companion, becoming more and more of a presence as she goes from simply needing him more to outright hallucinating from hunger and illness. So another of King’s perennial themes comes into play, the relationship of the fan to the fan-object, and how real and important it can be, for better or worse. (You do not need to know or care about baseball to read this book. I don’t. Technical details are minimal, and King tells you everything you need to know.)

But there are other things in the woods which Trisha didn’t call, except in the sense that she attracted them by being there and vulnerable. Maybe it’s whatever animal predator happens to be around. Maybe it’s a specific animal that’s tracking her. Or maybe it’s supernatural. This part of the story is exceptionally well-done and comes to a very satisfying conclusion.

Back to God, King’s perennial question of “Does he exist and if so, where is he and why does he let bad things happen?” is prominent in this book. While lost, Trisha considers and possibly encounters multiple concepts of God. One is the mainstream idea of an interventionist God, whom Tom Gordon petitions with a gesture during games; if that God answers an athlete’s prayers to win, will He answer Trisha’s to live? Another is the Subaudible, which Trisha’s father explained to her when she asked him if he believed in God:

"It had electric heat, that house. Do you remember how the baseboard units would hum, even when they weren't heating? Even in the summer?"

Trisha had shaken her head.

"That's because you got used to it, but take my word, Trish, that sound was always there. Even in a house where there aren't any baseboard heaters, there are noises. The fridges goes on and off. The pipes thunk. The floors creak. The traffic goes by outside. We hear those things all the time, so most of the time we don't hear them at all. They become... Subaudible.

“I don't believe in any actual thinking God that marks the fall of every bird in Australia or every bug in India, a God that records all of our sins in a big golden book and judges us when we die— I don't want to believe in a God who would deliberately create bad people and then deliberately send them to roast in a hell He created— but I believe there has to be something.

“Yeah, something. Some kind of insensate force for the good.

“I think there's a force that keeps drunken teenagers— most drunken teenagers—
from crashing their cars when they're coming home from the senior prom or their first big rock concert. That keeps most planes from crashing even when something goes wrong. Not all, just most. Hey, the fact that no one's used a nuclear weapon on actual living people since 1945 suggests there has to be something on our side."

Much of the book interrogates the idea of a Subaudible, particularly the question of just how conscious it is and if we're our own Subaudible. It also introduces the idea that the Subaudible may have a less benevolent counterpart. This is the God of the Lost, which may be the thing (if there is a thing) stalking Trisha through the woods. If so, is it malevolent or simply dangerous? Is it another insensate force, or conscious and concrete?

What will determine Trisha’s fate? God and the Devil? The Subaudible and the God of the Lost? No supernatural forces at all, just human beings and nature and Trisha herself? Or some combination of those?

I normally find religion the most boring topic on Earth. I did not find it boring in this book. It comes up naturally, and it’s in the form of open questions rather than preaching. I excerpted the part about the Subaudible because it’s easier to quote than to summarize, not because it’s presented as the One Truth.

The prose, which swings easily from King’s usual not-quite-stream-of-consciousness interspersed with bits of omniscient narration to some passages of striking beauty, doesn’t try to imitate a child’s speech. But though the language is adult, the content of Trisha’s inner world did mostly feel convicingly nine-year-old. That’s an age when many kids are thinking about God and why bad things happen. I’ve had children that age talk to me unprompted about those issues in simple language but using pretty sophisticated ideas. The Subaudible isn’t Trisha’s idea, it’s her father’s, but I believed that once he told her about it, she’d keep on chewing over it.

Cut for spoilers. I would not read these if you might read the book; they spoil the climax, which is quite beautifully orchestrated.

A few bits I didn’t want to spoil but I wanted to mention because they felt so emotionally realistic: the bit early on where Trisha packs her scraps because she was taught not to litter, never thinking that she should leave them as markers. That was so believable as a kid’s mindset. Also, go King, you finally wrote a poop scene that actually felt like it needed to be in there. Trisha gets sick and has a miserable night, then comes to the consoling realization that if she never mentions it, no one will ever know. I think a lot of us have had some humiliating bodily issue followed by that exact thought. I had so much empathy for poor Trisha on that one. And there was just enough detail to show what was going on and why she felt that way about it, without tipping into shit-weasel unreadable grossness.

The use of omni was also very well-done, with King dropping in to explain what would have happened if Trisha had gone in the other direction, missed the fence post, etc. He does it just enough to satisfy curiosity, provide a plausible mix of good and bad luck, and give us some “Arrgh, go the other way!” moments.

The ambiguity of the fantasy/supernatural/spiritual elements really worked for me, mostly because the emotional meaning was consistent regardless of how you interpret them. Because King sometimes drops into omniscient, we know something is sniffing around Trisha. But what? An animal? Different animals? Or something else?

My interpretation is that the Subaudible and the God of the Lost are real, but they’re not quite as personal or anthropomorphic as Trisha sometimes sees them. I think the bit where they and Tom Gordon’s God actually talk to her is Trisha putting a human-understandable face and voice on forces that are not really within human comprehension.

When she finally meets the bear-demon, yes, I think it was sent by the God of the Lost… but I think it was a regular bear that got a nudge to go there, get her. Her perceptions are real, but she’s seeing the spiritual truth beneath the surface, not a literal physical demon-bear with literal bugs for eyes. I think both she and the God of the Lost were working with and through natural forces, so the Walkman scared off the bear because you can scare off bears by throwing things at them. But she also defeated the God of the Lost on a spiritual plane, and that’s why the bear fled rather than getting pushed into a second try. The guy with the gun only saved her by getting her to a hospital; Trisha took out the bear all by herself.

I’m with Trisha’s Dad on the existence of the Subaudible as a real thing existing in the world of the book, with the extension that it includes Trisha herself and all of humanity, from the real Tom Gordon to her fannish relationship with him. So it’s mostly the sum of what’s good in humanity. But the Walkman’s possible but unlikely ability to pick up a signal, and its suspiciously long battery life? I think the Subaudible gave that one to her. (Or possibly Tom Gordon’s God. But as King hilariously points out, God does not appear to be a Red Sox fan.)

Similarly, I think the God of the Lost is real, but not as anthropomorphized as Trisha perceives it to be. It’s amoral in the sense that morality does not apply; it goes after her not out of evil or cruelty or any personal desire to get her, but because she stepped into a situation that was inevitably going to kill her if she didn’t escape first. It’s the embodiment of “nature will kill you because that’s what nature does.”

Then again, there’s Trisha’s brief but unsettling perception that the Subaudible is the God of the Lost. But even if that's correct, it still doesn't settle things: maybe the only goodness is us, or maybe the universe consists of us, a vast inimical force of questionable consciousness, and a conscious benevolent God. Ultimately, the book refuses to take a stand on things that are inherently unknowable, and I think that’s the right way to go.

Trisha’s final confrontation is beautifully written, perfect in prose and theme. She faces a bear and a God and the random machinery of death, and her response is to move from having Tom Gordon as a companion and inspiration to taking what she needs from him and making it her own. She’s a dying little girl squared off against a God, a demon, or maybe just (just) a fucking huge hungry bear— but she’s got icewater in her veins, the words of her fannish love in her mouth, and the willingness to give everything she has in this last fight, spit in the face of her greatest fear, and live or die on her feet.

Throwing the Walkman as a pitch was satisfyingly heroic— a perfect story climax— while still being something a kid could plausibly do. It brings together all the themes and plotlines— baseball, Tom Gordon, the Walkman itself, the forces against her, the forces protecting her, the entire question of spirituality, civilization versus nature, the idea that fannish love can literally save your life, and her own indomitable spirit even at death’s door— and makes the same crucial points no matter what interpretation you take of exactly what she faced or did.

Was it an ordinary bear that had been stalking her from hunger? A new bear that turned up then for the first time? A bear sent by the God of the Lost? A supernatural being? An incarnation of Mid-World’s Shardik? A hallucination? (The last is unlikely, because there was a witness… but he’s not the most reliable witness.) Or some combination of those, like a regular bear with added hallucinatory details?

Whatever it was, Trisha exerted the utmost heroism to save herself with the tools she had, and that’s true even if it was purely hallucinatory: she thought she fought it, and she certainly saved herself by walking that far.

The same coherence of theme with ambiguity of interpretation goes for the forces that help Trisha. The guy who finds her: was he sent in some way? By God? By the Subaudible? Or was he just an ordinary guy who happened to be there because she’d gotten far enough to hit a place where people were? And the times when she gets lucky: is luck alone, or did she get a nudge from the Subaudible or God? Any interpretation is satisfying, because none of them could have helped her if she hadn’t already gotten so far out of sheer persistence.

But in the end, when even her extraordinary determination isn’t enough by itself, even when her spiritual perception, whether right or wrong, is that the universe is nothing but teeth, she still doesn’t go down. Instead, she takes a battle that has never been on her turf and that she could only ever survive by going somewhere else, and drags it to a place where she belongs. After an entire book of trying to bring Tom Gordon into the wilderness, Trisha wins by taking the God of the Lost out to the ball game.

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