Book Notes: Passionate storytelling brings mystery to life
“The Last Woman in the Forest” By Diane Les Becquets. Berkley, 2019. 352 pages. $26
Women. Wilderness. Danger. Three words often viewed in close proximity. If you’re playing this game of associations, you’re probably thinking grizzly bears, mountain lions or rattlesnakes.
If you’re reading New Hampshire writer Diane Les Becquets’ new literary thriller, “The Last Woman in the Forest,” you know better. A smart, capable outdoors-woman’s most likely predator is a certain of kind man, described by Les Becquets as a psychopath “who seeks only power and control” and who views women as “mere objects” he can access using his great powers of charm and wit, praise and platitudes. Readers should probably avoid equating extreme misogyny with psychopathy though the leap may appear both short and tempting.
Women as prey is hardly a novel premise in American media. These days, it’s practically the only premise. Les Becquets, however, elevates the standards of the thriller, bringing to it harrowing personal experience, lots of interesting research and a story with unrelenting suspense. A group of young, dedicated researchers trained in handling dogs in adverse conditions treks into some of the world’s wildest and most remote places to collect data on endangered species.
At the center of this story is Marian Engstrom, in her 20’s. She’s a trainee who navigates perilous routes in snowed-in, sub-freezing temperatures and collects scat that the dogs she trains detect. Marian is from a family of campers and hikers, so it’s a natural for her to pursue her love of the outdoors by working to study and understand the pressures on fragile wild spaces like Alberta, Montana, Idaho, Utah and Washington.
She works with others just as committed, many of whom are transitioning from college to careers they have yet to decide. Skilled, trained and conditioned for extremes in temperatures and topography, they embrace their relationships with nature. Rachel Carson is cited: “Those who dwell as scientists or laymen among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.” Days and sometimes weeks are spent alone in rugged terrain populated by wolves and bears and poisonous snakes. Preparation and commitment overshadow fear.
Marian and her team work out of a central home base they call The Den, west of Whitefish, Montana. From there, they depart for short-term assignments such as scat collection from animals that may be impacted, for example, by the mining of tar sands. Close friendships and some romances develop in this setting that is tight, intense and interdependent.
A series of young women, some associated with the program, are found murdered in the vicinity of home base. The Stillwater State Forest murders in Montana, all done by the same man, are spaced out over several years. Marian’s relationship with Tate, one of her colleagues at home base, is both beguiling and problematic. Sometimes he seems a bit “off.” She must trust her own intuition, even when his powers of persuasion are forceful. Even though the women in this story do rely on instinct and intuition, they can’t always out-think and out-maneuver a canny predator.
Among the other notable characters is Nick, an affecting and compassionate forensic profiler who has just absorbed a diagnosis of Stage IV brain cancer. He is retired but there’s something about Marian’s inquiries that compel him, so he looks into Tate’s background. Even though the book begins with a suspect, the mysteries are many and the way Les Becquets presents them keeps readers from putting down the book. Elegant writing is not her style nor is it called for when building a page-turner. On the other hand, she’s a master of thoughtful, surprising twists and multi-dimensional characters.
Les Becquets is also a writer with integrity. She spent a good deal of time and travel researching this book. We learn a lot about dog handling, wilderness research, animal behavior, criminal profiling, life in close quarters in extreme environments, courage and young women challenging stereotyping and the status quo. Les Becquets was a victim of a protracted, violent attack and she learned, from her husband who was a forest ranger, the challenges of living with Stage IV brain cancer. She now lives in New Hampshire and is, herself, an avid outdoorswoman.
“The Last Woman in the Forest” can be read as a story about the presence of strong, capable women in nature. It is not a new story. In fact it is a seminal story. But Les Becquets’ passionate storytelling, with her fresh and fascinating perspective, is a surprise and a pleasure.
Rae Padilla Francoeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.