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Friday, April 03, 2009

Woodsburner

Only one year before the move to Walden Pond that would result in his literary masterpiece, Henry David Thoreau had a very different experience with the rustic environment near his Concord, Massachusetts home. In a careless attempt to start a cooking fire under unusually dry circumstances, Thoreau watched helplessly as a strong wind spread his small fire, and as almost 300 acres of the Concord Woods were destroyed. In fact, if not for the efforts of the townspeople, Concord itself might have burned to the ground.

John Pipkin looks at this surprising incident from Henry David Thoreau’s personal history through the eyes of Thoreau and several fictional characters in his strong debut novel, Woods Burner. In the process of creating a back-history for each of his main characters, Pipkin provides a revealing look at Massachusetts society of the 1840s and theorizes on how Thoreau’s mistake heavily influenced the rest of his life and career.

Pipkin uses three main characters other than Thoreau: Eliot Calvert, a bookstore owner who considers himself a budding playwright; Reverend Caleb Dowdy, a radical preacher who plans to build a new church in the Concord Woods; and Oddmund Hus, a simple Norwegian immigrant farmhand who works on one of the small farms surrounded by the woods.

Surprisingly enough, this novel of almost 370 pages takes place in just one real-time day, beginning shortly before Thoreau and his friend, Edward Sherman Hoar, make the fatal decision to turn some of their fresh catch into fish chowder, and ending not long after the locals finally manage to control the runaway fire. Pipkin uses the bulk of his novel to illustrate the 1840s lifestyle by creating detailed backgrounds for his three main characters, each of whom has an interesting story worthy of its own novel.

Circumstances bring Pipkin’s characters together in a way, and at a pace, that allows the reader to gain a clear picture of Massachusetts life of the period at several different societal levels. The novel also offers insight into how Thoreau’s budding environmental concerns were strengthened and focused by what happened to him and his friend in the Concord Woods that day – suggesting, perhaps, that tragedy oftentimes produces positive change.

Rated at: 5.0
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