Novella Carpenter’s ‘Gone Feral’ Departs Radically from Her Prior Books

Now a parent herself, Carpenter asks how her father, such a gifted man, became so ruined.

Novella Carpenter is best known for her 2009 memoir, Farm City, wherein she details her decision to squat farm the empty lot beside her rental. That this land is located in one of Oakland, California’s worst neighborhoods only adds to the madcap quality of Carpenter’s choice.

Make no mistake, however, she is utterly serious about life off the grid in one of the country’s grittiest cities. Farm City won Carpenter a lot of readers with her humor, honesty, and earthy refusal of consumerist values.

Farm City was followed in 2011 by The Essential Urban Farmer. Written with Willow Rosenthal, it addresses the burgeoning urban farm movement, outlining it in a thick manual. Less personal but highly instructional, the book takes the nascent farmer from dry ground to lush vegetation and, if one wishes, to raising animals.

Gone Feral, Carpenter’s latest release, departs radically from these cheerful books. When Carpenter stood before a packed house at Pegasus Books in Berkeley, California, she spoke of the need to make amends with her father, George Carpenter, an intermittent presence in her life. Suddenly, well into her 30s, she found herself wanting children.

Having raised goats, rabbits, and pigs, Carpenter was well-versed in genetic inheritance patterns, and hers is a source of concern. Her parents divorced when she was young. Her father, an idealistic child of the ’60s, lived in rural Idaho, scratching out a living logging and making guitars. He never held down a “real” job. “I just never really knew him,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter was in occasional email contact with her father, but they were never close. Now, the urge to become a parent sends her on a quest to find her father and, she hopes, have a heart-swelling reconciliation á la A River Runs Through It.

Novella Carpenter is now 42 years old. Public recognition has not changed her. She wears jeans, a button-down shirt, and work boots for this reading. Her face is bare of cosmetics. Her hair is just beginning to thread with gray. In this, she resembles the rest of the crowd: unpretentious, with an emphasis on comfort rather than glamour.

The surprise came with her voice: a thick, smooth honey that wouldn’t be misplaced on the FM radio of old. She holds an overcrowded, overheated, noisy room transfixed as she speaks of her often-difficult journey.

In the hopes of reconnecting with her father, Carpenter drove to Idaho with her longtime partner, Bill, but the reconciliation she’d hoped for didn’t transpire. Her father, now 74 years old, doesn’t lead a frontiersman’s dream life in an inspiring, hand-hewn cabin. Rather, he lives in a filthy, barely habitable structure without water or electricity. One room is a nest of plastic bags. The kitchen is littered with pill bottles. Critters have overtaken the upper level. Worse, his mind is unmoored. He has moments of paranoia and rage. He is forgetful and confused.

Gone Feral is filled with family photographs, including ones of Novella’s parents, young, beautiful, deeply in love, with the gorgeous Idaho landscape as a backdrop. Yet like so many idealistic ’60s hippies, the reality proved too difficult; their divorce was acrimonious. Neither one remarried afterwards.

George Carpenter still lives in Idaho. He is no longer in the squalid cabin; dementia has forced him into a hotel in town. He doesn’t always remember his granddaughter, Franny. Carpenter tells the audience he doesn’t remember she wrote a book about him. She plans to stop in Idaho during the book tour to give him a copy. She hopes he’ll be less confused that way.

Now a parent herself, Carpenter asks how such a gifted man, and once so at ease with nature, became so ruined. Closer to home, she recognizes a great deal of her father in herself—his temper, his aversion to social mores. “I am my father,” she says, “and he is me.”

Gone Feral is many things: another dispatch from the front of middle-aged children dealing with frail, aging parents, another dispatch from the failed experiments of ’60s back-to-the-land movements, another dispatch, more intimately, of a fractured family and the ties that still bind.