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Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild

A story of growing up and letting go, from the author of Farm City.

Novella Carpenter picks up the phone one day to receive some disturbing news: her father has officially gone missing. Carpenter’s father, George—a back-to-the-land homesteader and troubled Korean War veteran—has spent decades battling his inner demons while largely absenting himself from his children’s lives. Though George is ultimately found, Carpenter is forced to confront the truth: her time with her dad—now seventy-three years old—is limited, and the moment to restore their relationship is now. Gone Feral is the story of Carpenter’s search for her parents’ broken past in the harsh wilds of Idaho.

The story starts in San Miguel de Allende in 1969, where Carpenter’s free-spirited parents meet and fall in love. Their whirlwind romance continues through Europe and ends on 180 acres near Idaho’s Clearwater River. Carpenter and her sister are born into a free, roaming childhood, but soon the harsh reality of living on the land—loneliness, backbreaking labor—tears the family apart. Carpenter’s mother packs the girls and heads for the straight life in Washington State while George remains on the ranch, tied to the land and his vision of freedom.

In Gone Feral, Carpenter—now a grown woman leading an untraditional life, not unlike her parents’, raising livestock and growing vegetables in the city—finds herself contemplating a family of her own. Before that can happen, she knows she has to return to Idaho to discover why her father chose this life of solitude. She quickly finds that George is not living the principled, romantic life she imagined, and the truth is more com-plicated—and dangerous—than anything she suspected. As she comes to know the real George, Carpenter looks to her own life and comes to recognize her father’s legacy in their shared love of animals, of nature, and of the written word; their dangerous stubbornness and isolating independence. Finally, Gone Feral sees the birth of Carpenter’s own daughter, an experience that teaches that a parent’s love is itself a wild thing: unknowable, fierce, and ever changing. In reckoning with her past, Carpenter clears the road to her future.

Raw, funny, unsentimental, alive with unforgettable characters and pitch-perfect dialogue, Gone Feral marks Carpenter’s transformative passage from daughter to mother, a wry and rough tale of life lived on the margins and redemption between generations.


Other books by Novella Carpenter


“Spurred on by a desire to raise a family of her own and decipher the genetic code for either survival or destruction that she might be passing on, Carpenter performs a wild pas de deux with the cantankerous George, approaching him as one would a wild animal with no trust in humanity. Carpenter chronicles her daring quest for understanding and familial continuity in this sincere and remarkably uninhibited memoir.” —Booklist

I’m so glad Novella Carpenter has written this book. It’s gratifying to see a woman take on the question that has pulled at male authors for so longnamely, ‘What am I to make of my old man?’ In her efforts to answer that question (and to reconsider and reconcile her own complicated family history) Carpenter goes on nothing less than a vision quest, in search of answers from a particularly reticent and strange father. The resulting journey is both brave and honest. There is much to be learned here for all daughtersabout acceptance, about redemption, about the distances we must go at times to find our own deepest familial truths.” Elizabeth Gilbert, author of The Signature of All Things and Eat, Pray, Love

“Novella Carpenter couldn’t be more fun to hang out with on the page. Gone Feral is full of scruffiness and wit, melancholy and compassion. It’s an extraordinary portrait of a father and daughter doing their best to be family.” Jon Mooallem, author of Wild Ones

“Novella Carpenter is a delightful storyteller, and Gone Feral reads like a fable, full of wild and unknown things, including a trickster father, whose mountain man fantasies and failed dreams lead the author on her own sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking journey of discovery.” Kim Barnes, author of In the Wilderness and In the Kingdom of Men

Author Q&A


“Novella, you have a visitor,” Peggy, the receptionist at the Idaho Falls Post Register told me over the phone, though the office was small enough that I could hear her without amplification.

It was 2006, and I was in Idaho Falls for a summer-long newspaper reporting gig. I was thirty-two, still trying to figure out what to do with my life. I had come to Idaho because of my dad; he lived only a few hours from where I would be stationed. As soon as I arrived, I sent word that I was in state and waited for a response. I hadn’t seen him since 2001, when we had one of our usual brief and unsatisfying one-hour-long reunions. The summer was almost over before an e-mail finally arrived: He was coming the next day, and he was bringing his fly-fishing gear.

When Peggy called, I came out from my cubicle and there he was. He was lean and wore a dirty beige cowboy hat, a worn pair of Levi’s, and a Pendleton wool shirt I had sent him for Christmas ten years before.

“Hey sweets!” he yelled. He gave me a hug and a kiss. He had an elfin expression on his face, brown eyes shining, pointy chin. He looked fit as a fiddle.

“This is quite a place,” he said, surveying my ratty office. “This is big time! I’ll be damned.” I guessed that he hadn’t been to many offices before. I wasn’t sure what he was impressed by—the flimsy pressboard desks? The ancient computers? He let out a hoot and gave me another hug.

That night we went to Fred Meyer and bought fishing licenses, then split the prime rib special at a tourist restaurant called Fish and Steak. When we got back to my apartment after dinner he settled into my closet to sleep, choosing the floor over my perfectly good couch. The next morning, when I woke up, his sleeping bag was still in the closet, but he was nowhere to be found.

“Dad?” I called and looked in the kitchen. I prepared myself for the inevitable—he had left, it had been too intense seeing me, and as usual, he bailed.

Then I heard it: music, slightly muffled. I looked out the window of my apartment, through the vibrant green leaves of the plane trees. I saw my dad sitting in the passenger seat of his dingy blue Geo Metro. The door was ajar. One cowboy-boot–clad foot rested on the curb. He was playing his guitar.

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