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Wild Woman: A Footnote, the Desert, and My Quest for an Elusive Saint

Amy Frykholm
Broadleaf Books, 217 pages
Reviewed by Elizabeth Felicetti

“Wild Woman,” a literal and spiritual pilgrimage, deftly blends scholarship and memoir, recounting Amy Frykholm’s years-long obsession with Saint Mary of Egypt, whom she first encountered in a footnote. After a decade and a half of unearthing slim research about the saint, who is little known outside the Greek Orthodox church, Frykholm prepares to undertake a pilgrimage to follow in Mary’s footsteps. Hours before her departure, her dear friend and Episcopal pastor Ali is diagnosed with metastasized ovarian cancer. Frykholm considers postponing her pilgrimage, but Ali says: “No. I can’t explain it, but I feel you are going for both of us.” The diagnosis adds suspense and depth to the pilgrimage so that “Wild Woman” becomes more of a page turner than one might expect from a story of a desert hermit.

Frykholm, who lives in the southwest, writes of Egypt: “It wasn’t desert like I knew from Utah and Arizona, covered in cacti and sage, scrub brush and piñon. This was a more barren desert than I had ever imagined: bare brown hills, one after another.” This desert offers space to viscerally experience something of where Mary may have lived, as well as to grapple with the mortality of Frykholm’s own friend. Frykholm explains that pilgrimage literature distinguishes between glancing like tourists do and beholding, the goal for a pilgrim. Her sensuous descriptions of the desert encourage beholding. She learns to seek oleander, a toxic plant used to treat cancer that needs clean water to thrive.

In addition to the engrossing story of these outward and inward pilgrimages, readers will appreciate Frykholm’s own translation of Sophronious’ account of Mary and the monk Zosimas (painstakingly created by Frykholm and her father, a Greek scholar). The memoir concludes with “Life of Mary of Egypt,” followed by a poem of Mary’s three meetings with the monk that describes him encountering her body and burying her with the help of a lion. The inclusion of these two pieces adds academic and artistic intensity to the book.

Book clubs will find much to explore, especially those seeking to learn more about religious women in the margins of church history. Church groups focused on prayer and spirituality could spend significant time with this book and the question Frykholm raises early on: “When a Wild Woman comes into being, is she running to something or fleeing from something?”

Yearning permeates the volume: Saint Mary’s life of abuse and shame followed by her yearning for God led to years alone in the desert, where she yearns for Eucharist. After having spent much of the pandemic unable to gather in person and celebrate communion, many of us will relate. Frykholm’s own yearning to learn more about this saint leads her to follow in Mary’s footsteps, even while she is not sure what she seeks or if Mary was even real. Finally, Frykholm’s yearning for something different for her dear friend facing a deadly diagnosis will resonate with all who have faced disease in themselves or a loved one.

Elizabeth Felicetti is the rector of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, and reviews books for publications including The Christian Century, Kirkus Reviews and The Good River Review.