Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 17, 2021

Wilderness Tips (1991), by Margaret Atwood

Over at Buried in Print, it’s Margaret Atwood Reading Month a.k.a. #MARM, so it’s time to dip into a short story collection that I’ve had on the TBR since 2008. Wilderness Tips contains ten stories, which I’ll list here in case anyone is looking for a specific title from among her ten collections of short fiction.

  • True Trash
  • Hairball
  • Isis in Darkness
    The Bog Man
  • Death by Landscape
  • Uncles
  • The Age of Lead
  • Weight
  • Wilderness Tips
  • Hack Wednesday

For #MARM, I’ve read the first one, the ironically named True Trash.  It’s set primarily in a summer camp, and it begins with an arresting scene.  A group of waitresses are sunbathing while the young male campers are competing for a turn with the binoculars, hoping that the young women will turn to skinny-dipping which would make the itchy crouching in the mosquito-infected bushes across from their small private dock a great deal more worthwhile.

Immediately, we are plunged into a different era.  Boys don’t need to suffer such discomforts for a glimpse of flesh these days, do they? (Let’s not go there…)

Donny — already showing signs of entrepreneurship — is the owner of the binoculars, and he rents them out for a nickel or a chocolate block from the tuckshop.  He doesn’t eat the chocolate, he on sells it at twice the price.  He gets away with this because of the limited supply of chocolate on the island.  He has already seen what there is to see, but he likes to look at Ronette.  And though he would never admit this to anyone, he knows he’s supposed to feel lust for her, but this is not what he feels. 

The girls (who know they’re being watched) are reading a True Romance magazine.

Tricia has a whole stack of them, stowed under her mattress, and Sandy and Pat have each contributed a couple of others.  Every one of these magazines has a woman on the cover, with her dress pulled down over one shoulder or a cigarette in her mouth or some other evidence of a messy life.  Usually these women are in tears.  Their colours are odd: sleazy, dirt-permeated, like the hand-tinted photos in the five-and-ten.  Knee-between-the-legs colours.  They have none of the cheerful primaries and clean, toothy smiles of the movie magazines: these are not success stories.  True Trash, Hilary calls them.  Joanne calls them Moan-o-dramas. (p.11)

Which one of the girls named so far will be in tears? There are few men at the camp to break anyone’s heart.  There is Mr B. who owns it, but since there are only two young men, Darce and Perry, they can have their pick of the girls.

Joanne, quietly musing about the attractions of the other girls, doesn’t understand Ronette’s appeal.

Nobody bawls her out or even teases her as they would anyone else.  She is a favourite with them, though it’s hard to put your finger on why.  It isn’t just that she’s easygoing: so is Liz, so is Pat.  She has some mysterious, extra status.  For instance everyone else has a nickname. […] Only Ronette has been accorded the dignity of her full, improbable name.

In some ways she is more grown up than the rest of them.  But it isn’t because she knows more things.  She knows fewer things; she often has trouble making her way through the vocabularies of the others, especially the off-hand slang of the private-school trio.  (p.18-19)

Joanne concludes that Ronette knows other things, hidden things.  Secrets. And these other things are older, and on some level more important. 

And then Atwood promptly undercuts this tantalising scrap of information about Ronette:

Or so thinks Joanne, who has a bad habit of novelising. (p.19)

In this short story of only 26 pages, we see Joanne’s PoV, and Donny’s, both at the camp and eleven years later in Toronto.  Have there been tears?  Probably. But here’s the twist: Joanne realises that in the space of a decade, social mores have changed so much that what used to be shocking and ruinous, now barely raises a shrug.

Everything is cool.  A line has been drawn and on the other side of it is the past, both darker and more brightly intense than the present.

She looks across the line and sees the nine waitresses in their bathing suits, in the clear blazing sunlight, laughing on the dock, herself among them; and off in the shadowy rustling bushes of the shoreline, sex lurking dangerously.  It had been dangerous, then.  It had been sin.  Forbidden, secret, sullying. (p.37)

The alternative had been the sugary safety of marriage.

But nothing has turned out that way. Sex has been domesticated, stripped of the promised mystery, added to the category of the merely expected.  It’s just what is done, mundane as hockey.  It’s celibacy these days that would raise eyebrows. (p.37)

Joanne, so fond of storytelling, understands that the story of that summer in camp is a story that can’t be told because that would never happen now.

Except by a master of her craft, Margaret Atwood!

Title: Wilderness Tips
Cover image: The Little Deer, by Frida Kahlo
Publisher: Virago, 1992, first published 1991
ISBN: 9781853813955, pbk., 247 pages
Source: personal library


  1. Thank you, Lisa, for reminding me of Wilderness Tips. I too have that edition with the superb FK image on the cover. I remember loving the stories when I read them long ago. ‘Hairball’ was a favourite – but they are all fabulous.


  2. Ohhh, you’ve definitely made me want to revisit this collection. But forget that, it’s much more worthy of discussion that you’ve dusted off your unread copy dating to 2008. At least it’s proven itself worthy of having occupied that space for so long! I really love those wry little comments like the one about Joanne’s novelising…once anyone hears MA reading/speaking, you can hear her sideways, as-though-told-in-confidence, tone and these little nudges are such a treat. Thank you for taking part in MARM and I hope you continue to enjoy the other stories, whenever you get to them!


    • I remember when I bought it. I found a whole lot of them second hand and bought the lot, gradually working my way through the novels until this was all I had left this year!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Weren’t those Virago editions just fabulous. I don’t think I have this one though, I do have a collection of her short stories, Bluebeard’s egg perhaps. I should dig it out.


  4. I’m going to read them in order so that one is next!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I read all her short stories over twenty years ago – definitely in need of a revisit – except they were library borrows at the time… oh well, I’ll enjoy your wraps ups as they go along instead :-)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh lovely. I know I’ve read this, but pre-blog so quite a while back and can remember nothing about it. Time for a revisit!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I read this as a teenager so remember absolutely nothing about it now, except that I enjoyed it! The quotes you pulled are great – I feel I should revisit all the Atwoods I read so long ago, I’m sure I’d get something very different from them now.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Apologies, my friends, for my late response to your comments which are as always much appreciated.
    I have been away in Beechworth for a short escape from Melbourne and had set up a couple of reviews to schedule themselves — and as you can see from the above, I was able to use my phone to respond to a couple of these comments, but then it stopped recognising my password!
    Plus, I was planning to read a few more of the stories while I was away but I became totally absorbed in something else #MeaCulpa.
    Anyway, I am back home now so *chuckle* normal service will shortly resume.


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