BOOKLIGHT: “WOODSBURNER” AN AMAZING NEW DEBUT NOVELJohn Pipkin’s amazing debut novel “Woodsburner,” based upon a real event in Henry David Thoreau’s life: a year before building his cabin on Walden Pond, Thoreau accidentally set a fire that burned three hundred acres of the Concord woods.
By: Ellen Baker, Living North Magazine
On a windy, dry, late April day in 1844, Henry David Thoreau goes ashore at Fair Haven Bay near Concord, Massachusetts, to make a fish chowder for lunch for himself and his companion, Edward Hoar. They had forgotten to bring matches on the day’s outing, but they met a shoemaker on the river who gave them three. Now, “two lie black and twisted like question marks in the dirt… It seems very likely they will have to settle for a cold meal after all.” Then, Henry strikes the third match. “He whispers to the kindling a sweet and urgent seduction, and the handfuls of dry grass and twigs piled in the stump suddenly ignite and the young fire nips at his fingertips. The wind lifts the straw hat from his head and tosses it playfully into the flames. He understands already that it is too late.”
So begins John Pipkin’s amazing debut novel “Woodsburner,” based upon a real event in Henry David Thoreau’s life: a year before building his cabin on Walden Pond, Thoreau accidentally set a fire that burned three hundred acres of the Concord woods.
As Henry’s fire spreads, and along with it his guilt and panic, the novel, too, spreads to tell the tales of three other main characters: Oddmund Hus, a Norwegian immigrant farmhand with an unusual background who is secretly in love with Emma, the wife of his employer; Eliot Calvert, a bookseller and aspiring if hilariously incompetent playwright, who is in a constant struggle between his duty to support his family and his desire to pursue his art; and Caleb Ephraim Dowdy, a reverend whose desperation and doubt about God and human existence has led him to destroy his fine church with a hatchet and become an opium addict who preaches to his followers in a barn.
For all four characters, the fire in the woods is a catalyst, an inspiration, a terror, and a gift.
As it continues to spread, Henry turns to considering the many steps that led to his striking the match, wondering where blame should lie. With the death of his brother, his uncle’s discovery of a particularly rich grain of graphite to use in the family pencil-making business, his hatred for New York City, the fact that he sold his beloved handmade boat Musketaquid to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who saw fit to rechristen it Pond Lily?
‘Odd’ Hus, too, considers his past, which had instilled in him such a fear of fire that he refuses to light one even in a stove, so takes all his meals cold, and such a fear of his own desires that he barely speaks to anyone. (Emma observes of him that “even a gesture as simple as a nod seems to come only after he has taken the time to work out the hidden consequences.”)
Eliot anticipates with glee that fighting the fire will allow him to walk in the shoes of the hero of the play he’s been working on for years, The House of Many Windows; he has envisioned the climax to be an actual fire which burns down the set. (An expensive proposition, he realizes, to burn and rebuild the set every night, but he is sure the effect will be worth the effort.)
Caleb begins to see the fire as a chance to test his faith and relieve – or confirm – his doubts, once and for all.
By the novel’s end, the characters’ tales have all intersected in satisfying ways, brought together as they’ve been by the fire Henry has set – which is the culminating blaze, as it turns out, in a series of conflagrations that have touched the characters’ lives – and each character has achieved some kind of epiphany in his own struggles.
Highlighting a moment of definition for American society with moments of hilarity, moments of dark introspection, enormous suspense, impossibly gorgeous prose, and astonishing imagery, this novel should, I think, be moved to the very top of your ‘to read’ list.
Ellen Baker is the author of Keeping the House: A Novel, now available in paperback. She lives in northeastern Minnesota, where she is at work on her second novel. Visit her Web site at www.ellenbakernovels.com.