Saturday, February 5, 2011

Woodsburner: A Novel

by John Pipkin
Anchor Books, 2010
366 pages     Fiction

Henry David Thoreau—junior year of high school—American literature. Was this when you were introduced to Thoreau and Walden? For me, and I would guess for many, the message of Henry David Thoreau remains ingrained. I had thought before I read Woodsburner: A Novel by John Pipkin I would read Walden again, some 50 years after I had read it the first time for the demanding Mr. Burroughs. I was traveling, so I checked it out of the library in MP3 format, stuck the plugs in my ears, and proceeded to listen as I drove through a snow storm. Unfortunately, philosophy, snow, and trucks on I-94 don’t mix, so I abandoned the effort and went straight for the novel.

Woodsburner looks at an incident from the life of Henry David Thoreau—the accidental fire he started that nearly burned down the village of Concord, MA in 1844—from the perspective of the young Thoreau as well as five other people whose lives were engulfed in the fire and changed by it. Henry David Thoreau is but one of the players in the ensuing drama. The others are a Norwegian farmer, a bookseller from Boston, a fire-and brimstone preacher, and a lesbian couple recently arrived from Bohemia. Each has already been involved with fire: the farmer survived a tragic explosion; the bookseller is writing a play in which a house burns down as its climax; the preacher is expecting the earth to end in eternal flame; and the lesbian couple have escaped from being burned as witches in their native land.

Henry David Thoreau is almost a minor character in the drama, even as he is the one who began the whole thing. One reviewer says, “…he speaks and thinks in a mixture of innocence, self-righteousness, apprehension and nobility.” Although Pipkin uses Thoreau’s writing as the basis for the young man’s thoughts, he doesn’t quote it, for which I was grateful. For instance, thinking of the bookseller, the character Thoreau ponders, “You are mired in a life of desperation”… “and do not even know enough to remain quiet about it.” The author says, “It would be easy to take readers’ expectations and reinforce them. I tried to show the foundation of the man he would become while avoiding the temptation to just put some of his most quotable thoughts in his head.”

Of course Pipkin had in mind Throeau’s famous quote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation," as he began his novel, because each of these characters is in despair. With Pipkin’s skillful writing, they come to life and each finds his way out of desperation.

As I was reading this book, I was constantly thinking about Pipkin and the creative journey he was on as he wrote this book. How did he find this topic and these characters? He says, “My concern, wasn’t so much about the process of how to do it or what people would think about me doing this but about me being able to remain true to the mission of fiction—to make up a good story.” And it is a very good story. One of the things I liked the most was that the author is not bogged down in the details of the era, although there is enough detail that the setting is interesting. I am generally not a fan of historical fiction when I feel like the author is flaunting his knowledge of the time and place. Pipkin’s setting is authentic but not overwhelmingly so. In other words, this book is character driven rather than historically driven.

In closing, I have to say that I am grateful for the nudge from the author’s agent to read this book, because I would not have found it otherwise. Although it has won several awards, it has not made its way to my usual book review sources. It stretched my thinking, and for that I am grateful. I woke up this morning thinking about how I want to move my own life forward, out of the despair of the ordinary, to the adventure of the unknown.

Here is a good summary of the book:

The review in the Washington Post:

An interview on an Austin TX radio station:

John Pipkin’s website:

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