Saturday, February 5, 2011
Woodsburner: A Novel
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.
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.
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: http://www.redroom.com/publishedwork/woodsburner
The review in the Washington Post:
An interview on an Austin TX radio station: http://kut.org/items/show/16643
John Pipkin’s website: http://web.mac.com/pipkinjohn/iWeb/Site/About%20the%20Author.html