It’s not every day that people run to the Northwoods, particularly in the Wisconsin region, for safety and stability. Yet it proves itself to be the perfect backdrop for Jill Stukenberg’s News of the Air. In this novel, Stukenberg paints the picture of a near future with repeated violent protests flooding the cities and wildfires rampaging the rest. In what starts off with a similar feel to The Handmaid’s Tale, Stukenberg details the journey of a young family, especially the mother, sacrificing the pleasures of city life for a new, safer life in the woods where her daughter can stretch her legs and peace can envelop them all. However, as life goes on, the daunting realization creeps up that trouble is everywhere and that running away from your problems often creates new ones, maybe even ones that you can’t run from anymore.
In the prologue, Stukenberg sets the tone for what is to come. “On the whole if the world were changing… it was only changing as it had always been, in increments, with time enough for response if things got serious” (5). The state of the world was increasingly getting more tense with too many people flocking to cities and sucking up more resources than it could provide. Seeing what was only inevitable, husband and wife Bud and Allie decide to purchase a small resort in the Northwoods to make their new home. Noting, “No matter what was going on in the world, people would always need their little getaways,” (5) they saw this as an opportunity for a new, simpler life with the added bonus of income and accessibility to the water and Canada if escape was ever needed.
It’s hard not to see the mirror being held up to the world while reading this book. With political, geographical, and environmental tensions exponentially increasing in the last two decades, let alone the last six years, Stukenberg creates a narrative that many people today wish to play out themselves. Growing tired of the rat race, inflation, affordability, safety, and pollution, many young people long for simpler times. However, Stukenberg’s narrative is successful in reminding the audience that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. As the story progresses, we learn that the Northwoods provides the ultimate grounds for infidelity in their marriage, the bullying and eventual suicide of a classmate of their daughter’s, isolation, shady business, those running from the law, and more. Not only this, but what does a baby who was raised in the remote wilderness make of their life as an adult? We are reminded that a remote land with little to no cell phone service, unmarked roads, and generations of lifelong residents with tight lips can be the opposite of paradise or even a safe haven.
Stukenberg shows us throughout the novel that the conflict of the “outside” will inevitably find a way to seep into the once thought private lives of the characters. Much of the conflict in this novel is centered around three mystery guests that appear at the family’s resort by canoe and jet ski; a grandmother and her two seemingly orphaned grandchildren on the lam. When Cassie, Bud and Allie’s daughter, is mature enough to become aware that these children aren’t necessarily neglected by their parents, that these children have two living parents that didn’t leave them to their grandmother, her negative feelings towards her parents begin to deepen and her rebellion grows. Stukenberg does an effective job of showing the strained relationship between mother and daughter as Allie sets her attention on guests, neighbors, and seemingly anyone other than Cassie, her one and only child. In turn, Cassie begins to flex her independence in new ways. As a child she would tinker with paddle boats and electronics; as an adult, she is beginning to build relationships with others in the Northwoods outside of her parents. Her curiosity and hunger for the truth leads her to stray away from the bubble her mother had built around her. It forces Bud and Allie to question their style of upbringing and if retreating into wilderness really was the best thing for their budding family at the time. It forces the reader to question if sheltering oneself from danger really protects them from the danger, or if it leaves them blind and ignorant to the harsh realities one must inevitably face in this life
It’s almost ingrained in us to worry about the future, especially for those with children that will experience a future beyond their own. The idea of leaving what was once called home for the promise of a better future is certainly coded into human nature. Some may see it as going to where the resources are, but in today’s world it can also be seen as running away from one’s problems. As many of us eventually learn in life, problems have a funny way of following us wherever we go or exchange themselves for new ones. That is certainly the case in News of the Air where the main characters leave their cushioned lives for one filled with manual labor, unmarked roads, and prying neighbors who start their morning with a light beer rather than coffee. In the end, not everybody remains in the Northwoods because of the ever changing climate and the never ending change of one's sense of self. What Stukenberg conveys to the audience is that it’s not up to the environment to promise a better tomorrow—it’s up to us.