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Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island [Hardcover]

Will Harlan
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

22 May 2014
Carol Ruckdeschel is the wildest woman in America. She eats road kill, wrestles alligators, rides horses bareback, and lives in a ramshackle cabin that she built herself in an island wilderness. She's had three husbands and many lovers, one of whom she shot and killed in self-defense. A combination of Henry David Thoreau and Jane Goodall, Carol is a self-taught scientist who has become a tireless defender of sea turtles on Cumberland Island, a national park off the coast of Georgia. Cumberland is the country's largest and most biologically diverse barrier island--over forty square miles of pristine wilderness celebrated for its windswept dunes and feral horses. Steel magnate Thomas Carnegie owned much of Cumberland, and his widow Lucy made it a Gilded Age playground. But in recent years, Carnegie heirs and the National Park Service have clashed with Carol over the island's future. What happens when a dirt-poor naturalist with only a high-school diploma tries to stop one of the wealthiest families in America? "Untamed" is the story of an American original standing her ground and fighting for what she believes in, no matter the cost.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 307 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press / Atlantic Monthly Press (22 May 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802122582
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802122582
  • Product Dimensions: 23.1 x 15.5 x 3.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 559,646 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"Vivid. . . . Ms. Ruckdeschel's biography, and the way this wandering soul came to settle for so many decades on Cumberland Island, is big enough on its own, but Mr. Harlan hints at bigger questions. Who does this island belong to? The Park Service, the Carnegies, Carol--and, for that matter, the turtles? What is the difference between stewardship and ownership? Carol Ruckdeschel found a home as the latest in a series of women who have tried to protect Cumberland Island. The difference being that, rather than being a Carnegie, she is a benevolent invasive species of one."--"Wall Street Journal" ""Untamed" doesn't aim to be another book about sea turtles, but rather one about how some people are passionately in love with wild places. It's a profound, inspiring biography of a unique American woman who's earned her place alongside Huck Finn, Thoreau and other heroic wanderers."--"Associated Press" "Harlan intimately and expansively profiles a fearless Southern island dweller. . . . A moving homage and an adventure story that artfully articulates the ferocities of nature and humanity."--"Kirkus Reviews" "The true and inspiring story of a rugged island and the remarkable woman who has spent decades defending it."--"Publishers Weekly" "Carol Ruckdeschel isn't quite your mother's idea of a role model, but she is "my" idea of an inspiring woman. Her gifts are many, her commitment resolute, her contribution world-class. And boy--as you'll read--has she had fun. What a story! It's as beautiful as the island she loves."--Carl Safina, author of "The View from Lazy Point" and "A Sea in Flames" "Now "this" is an adventure story. "Untamed" is the true-life saga of a brilliant, beautiful woman who became her own tall tale. Just to survive, Carol Ruckdeschel had to become as elusive and mysterious as the creatures she first set off into the wilderness to study. Hunted by her enemies, stalked by an ex-lover, living off the land, Ruckdeschel found he

About the Author

Will Harlan is the editor-in-chief of "Blue Ridge Outdoors," the country's largest regional outdoor magazine. A top trail runner and a long-time journalist, his work has appeared in "The Wall Street Journal, National Geographic Adventure, " and elsewhere.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars A remarkable story 27 Jun 2014
By Amanda Jenkinson TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Carol Ruckdeschel was a remarkable character, and comes alive in this detailed, well researched and memorable portrait of her. It’s a true life saga, an adventure story of someone who devoted her whole life to protecting the wilderness of Cumberland Island, off the coast of Georgia, and her quest to save the sea turtles that nest there from extinction. She was very much a “wild woman”, living off the land in primitive conditions, and totally devoted to the natural world that she knew to be so threatened by development. A self-taught scientist, she could hold her own with the great and good of the academic world – but never wanted to be part of that world.
Will Harlan knew her well and this book is a wonderful introduction not just to Carol herself but the natural and ecological world she lived for. Scientific digressions scattered throughout the book on all matter of topics are both informative and entertaining. The only thing that spoilt the book for me was the reconstructions of conversations that it seems unlikely Harlan was there to actually record. Maybe Ruckdeschel had perfect recall and narrated these conversations to the author but they still rang false, and weren’t necessary. In a book that concentrates on the real world, such fictional scenarios are out of place.
However, all in all this is a thoroughly entertaining book, which taught me about a place I’d never heard of and a brave and inspiring woman I’d never heard of and I found it both compelling and deeply moving.
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  57 reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining and Inspiring 29 Jun 2014
By Paul - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
A biography of a controversial figure is likely to be controversial. An uninformed reader can't tell how accurate and objective the story is in the telling of the events and the description of the characters involved. However, it is an engaging and enjoyable read and the commitment and dedication to the preservation of our natural environment, and in particular, wilderness, is inspiring.
I am biased in favor of the protection of wilderness areas and believe this should take precedence over historical and archaeological interests, which colors my view of the subject. This book is likely to get you thinking about the various conflicting interests that compete for the use of our land and natural resources, and in particular, which interests should supersede others.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Maybe not the wildest woman in America but one of the more interesting women 22 Jun 2014
By Dr Muddawg - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Will Harlan's "Untamed" is a readable and informative screed about the life and crusades of Carol Ruckdeschel.While
describing her a misfit would be an injustice, she has battled against the powers that be for decades in order to preserve Cumberland Island as a wildlife refuge. I had read a piece about her in The New Yorker by John McPhee years ago. To say her approach to saving wildlife is idiosyncratic would be an understatement. Her in-your-face confrontational attitude to the old monied residents, the National Park Service, shrimp fishers, the US Navy and hack politicians (her friend Jimmy Carter being a notable exception) may have undermined her cause at times. Hers is an interesting life down a path few would dare to take. There is no doubt the country owes her and others for the preservation of one our most beautiful barrier islands on the East Coast. Cumberland will doubtlessly need more advocates in the future but they may not need to be quite as controversial as she to be effective.
46 of 63 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Could have been a greater story if the truth had been told:[...] 12 April 2014
By Carolyn Henry - Published on Amazon.com
The publishers, wanting to sell as many books as possible, chose to cut out the real story of Carol's near-death experience. My father, Dr. Jim Henry, her partner and very significant other at the time, was the one who got her off the island to get her medical help. It took months before they knew what was wrong. He took her to all kinds of doctors. Finally, they discovered it was a heart valve infection and she needed open heart surgery immediately. My father called me down from Atlanta because he didn't know if she was going to make it or not. We were at the hospital with her the entire time. Will Harlan was there because my dad called him to come to Savannah to see Carol. My father died of undetected colon cancer five months later. His commitment to saving her life instead of his own was indicative of the great man that he was and will always be remembered for. Not to mention one of the greatest marine geologists and environmentalists that this country and the world has had the benefit of. He also started Georgia Wilderness Watch, now called Wild Cumberland, Inc. [...]
23 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Superbly written book about two fascinatingly unique characters: an environmentalist and an island 23 April 2014
By Dan Sadowsky - Published on Amazon.com
Will Harlan is an extremely talented writer who has authored a richly detailed, entertaining biography of a free-spirited environmentalist and her polarizing attempts to preserve an American treasure.

The author's writing shines throughout this book, most notably in his descriptions of the island, its history and its residents, both two- and four-legged, and in scenes where the details and the dialogue put the reader right on the island. He demonstrates a breadth and depth of knowledge that makes clear he has invested years in the location, the characters and the story he tells.

The story weaves together the many battles over Cumberland's fate that take place over decades, Carol's litany of battles with herself, her relationships and a cast of friends of adversaries, and the intriguing history and unique features of an island worth knowing about. We're introduced to a wide array of supporting characters and led on fascinating historical digressions on topics ranging from fugitive slaves to sea turtle migrations to the Carnegie heirs. This is colorful history.

Full disclosure here: Harlan mentions me in his acknowledgements because I was one of his student-newspaper editors at the college we attended. But since he credits me with helping him grow as a writer by "eviscerating" his first story about the island, it's appropriate for me to mention a couple of criticisms I have of this, his first book.

One is that Harlan keeps himself out of the story, which is understandable but also somewhat disappointing. He obviously has spent a great deal of time on the island, and knows both the geographic and personal territory intimately. Throughout the book he's mainly telling Carol's story but trying to give a balanced account, and I think readers would have appreciated his voice as a guide and authority in his own right. Because he doesn't place himself in the tale, it's also hard to tell where he's getting the information to reconstruct so many scenes — whether any was firsthand, whether it comes solely from Carol, or whether it incorporates the versions of any of the other characters, many of whom were Carol's archrivals.

The book gets a little choppy toward the end, when the chronology feels a bit jumbled. We move between years in the 1990s fairly liberally, and catch up to present day in what seems like a rush. Finally, Carol's quotations during arguments with her many adversaries can get repetitive and border on the didactic.

In the end, Harlan has written an excellent book, full of evocative writing rich in detail and grounded in fact, and infused with his passion for environmental and social justice. Readers will appreciate the long years he spent getting to know his subject matter. I hope he's got more books in him.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Keep Cumberland Island's Wilderness Wild! 15 Aug 2014
By Frederick A. Braman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I read this book with great interest and I enjoyed it. Whether some of the anecdotal stories about Carol are all entirely accurate or not, as some reviewers question, is unimportant. In fact, the stories themselves are unimportant. With something like a 100 visits to Cumberland over the past 30 years, I have heard them all before. Cumberland Island is a special place. The south part, is very friendly to families for hiking, camping, shark tooth hunting, meandering through the island's rich history, or spending a day at one of the world's great beaches. The north part is a little harder to enjoy, and well it should be. It is half an island where nature should be left to her own devices. Had it not been for a favored president's son getting married in the north, few would care about it. Even as you read this, there are a lot of people trying to turn Cumberland Island, this magnificent resource, into something that we already have a lot of; paved bike trails, motor vehicle tours, parking lots, beach boardwalks and all that come with them. I enjoy that too, but, a few places need to be preserved, giving turtle nesting a priority over sea kayak rentals and suntan lotion sales. Today, Cumberland Island is special, but, fragile. Fragile, not because of shifting sands, occasional wildfires, or summer storms, but fragile because a few political decisions could make it just another beach place, like the rest of the East Coast. I hope that everybody reads this book and that every reader comes away with the notion that the special places like Cumberland require the public's constant surveillance to keep them special. Harlan did not make this message explicit, but, it is imbedded in his book's pages. The government has done a lot to preserve our natural heritage, but, they often need help in making the right decisions and we need to keep an eye on them. Carol has kept an eye on them and deserves a major share of credit for how Cumberland has turned out.
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