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"[W]hen the embers begin to cool and the various story lines in Woodsburner draw to a close... all of [the characters] will linger in your mind." The Washington Post Book World (read the entire Washington Post Book World review)
Synopses & Reviews
In 1844, the year before he built his cabin on Walden Pond, young Henry David Thoreau was a lost soul, resigned to a career working for his father's factory. But a fateful event set him on a very different course. One dry spring day, he struck a match to start a campfire, and in minutes the trees overhead were ablaze. By day's end, 300 acres of the woods were destroyed. Haunted by whispers of Woodsburner, Thoreau retreated to Walden and began the writings that altered the landscape of American thought.
Against this factual background, John Pipkin's ingenious debut evokes the imagination of the young Thoreau and the American moment that shaped him, as he crosses paths with a cast of citizens who harbor passionate dreams. Oddmund Hus, a lovable Norwegian farmhand, pines for the wife of his brutal employer. Elliott Calvert, a prosperous bookseller, is also a hilariously inept aspiring playwright. And Caleb Dowdy preaches fire and brimstone to his congregation through an opium haze. Each of their lives, like Thoreau's, is changed forever by the fire.
Like Geraldine Brooks's March and Colm Toibin's The Master, Woodsburner brings America's literary and cultural past to life with insight, wit, and deep affection for its unforgettable characters.
Late in April 1844, a pair of misfits went camping on the Concord River in Massachusetts, with plans to survive "Indian-style" on the fish they caught. The forest along the banks was dangerously dry, but one of the young men started a campfire anyway. Encouraged by a brisk wind, the flames quickly spread to the grass and then to the pines and birch trees. Before the end of that awful day, 300 acres... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) had been reduced to ash. You know this accidental arsonist as the world's most famous naturalist, Henry David Thoreau. But to the aggrieved men of Concord, he was known for many years as that "damned rascal," the "Woodsburner." Not surprisingly, Thoreau didn't refer to this incident in his classic meditation on nature, "Walden; or, Life in the Woods." He couldn't even bring himself to mention it in his own journal until six years after the fact, when he finally described the fire with such shameless pride and self-justification that you want to slap him upside his Transcendental head. But now, 165 years later, that awful day finally bursts back into flame. John Pipkin's brooding first novel, "Woodsburner," starts on the morning of April 30, as Henry David squats on the bank of Fair Haven Bay and strikes a match he bummed from a shoemaker. The novel ends that evening, as the blackened forest glows in the darkness and soot snows down on the town of Concord. Over the course of this momentous day, Pipkin moves back in time and across the Atlantic, describing several other characters whose lives are lit by their own fires and altered by Thoreau's conflagration. The ingenious nature of this structure grows clearer with each haunting chapter. The fire that "flows like brilliant liquid" through Concord Woods is a natural engine for a terrifically exciting story, and Pipkin conveys such a visceral impression of the "clever flames crouching in the branches" that you can feel the heat radiating off these pages. You would expect Thoreau to dominate this story, but he falls away for long sections. When he does appear, though, he speaks and thinks in a mixture of innocence, self-righteousness, apprehension and nobility. Pipkin, who was born and raised in Baltimore, attends precisely to the details of Thoreau's life, his descriptions in "The Journal" and even the epigraphic phrases of "Walden." The character who emerges is a rough-hewn preview of the polished icon that Thoreau has become. In the best sections, this lonely 26-year-old man is torn with grief over the recent death of his brother and anxiety about his future. (How long can he make pencils in his father's factory?) It's a portrait far more attentive to the complexity and turmoil of the man than we get in, say, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's popular sanctification of him in their play "The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail." But just as captivating are those characters Pipkin has invented, men and women consumed by their own passions. They provide a fascinating impression of the nation when it was still young and swelling and struggling to define itself. They see the Concord fire through their own private flames — fire is everywhere in this novel — and Pipkin allows them to brush up against each other in the most subtle and ingenious ways. New England religious fever is represented by an itinerant preacher, a Gothic figure smelling of brimstone and appalled by Ralph Waldo Emerson's misty brand of Unitarianism. He's chosen this fiery April day to announce the construction of a church in the Concord woods. Haunted by the possibility that nothing lies beyond but "a blank, empty, measureless abyss," the Rev. Caleb Dowdy has devised an infernal scheme to offend God so deeply that He will make His displeasure manifest in the physical world. Seeing the forest burst into flames is the proof he craves that "the palsied hand of Providence" is finally moving. Meanwhile, a snobbish bookstore owner has just arrived from Boston to survey his new store in Concord when the call goes up for firefighters. Eliot Calvert is a merchant worn down by the forces of commerce, the sort of figure suggested by Thoreau's stinging critique of the businessman in "Walden." Once an aspiring (and hilariously awful) playwright, he sacrificed his artistic ambitions to satisfy the demands of his purse, imagining that each new concession to commercial success would give him the freedom he desires. (How depressing to read that even pre-Civil War bookstore owners felt they needed to clutter their shops with everything but books to make a profit. And of course, then as now, when nothing else will sell, there's always porn.) The Concord fire might afford him the chance for real heroism or artistic insight — or deadly blunder. He's a brilliantly drawn character, ridiculous and pompous, but finally deeply sympathetic. But from start to finish "Woodsburner" belongs to a strange farmhand named Oddmund Hus (Odd for short, and for real). This painfully shy young man comes to the New World in the novel's most spectacular conflagration, an explosion in Boston Harbor that propels him to shore even as it kills the rest of his Norwegian family. His tumultuous upbringing in America and his efforts to tame his sexual urges display the remarkable texture of Pipkin's storytelling. A kind of precursor of the hermit Thoreau will eventually pretend to be in "Walden," Odd lives alone in the woods, but unlike Thoreau, he burns with desire for a woman, the plump wife of his master. It's an irresistibly tender story, grounded in tragedy but flecked with some outrageously bawdy moments. When the alarm goes up in Concord, we can't tell whether this emergency will finally ignite his smoldering affections or send him fleeing deeper into the woods. At the end of the day, when the embers begin to cool and the various story lines in "Woodsburner" draw to a close, Odd is the character who burns brightest in this profound and thoughtful novel, but all of them will linger in your mind. Follow Ron Charles on Twitter at www.twitter/roncharles. Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Witty, bawdy, philosophical, touching, and humorous, Woodsburner is a novel I didn't want to end. While Pipkin's book celebrates a sense of both the abundance and fragility of Thoreau's Nature, it also creates a new American Adam and Eve, thoroughly flawed from the beginning but ultimately victorious in their shared joy. Much as in our own time, the characters struggle with their desire for life-shaping change, the age-old stirrings of the body, and economic necessity along with their quests for spiritual, intellectual, and artistic fulfillment. This book is packed with interesting ideas, vital characters, and vivid writing." Sena Jeter Naslund, author of Ahab's Wife and Four Spirits
"Characters whose inner lives are richly and complexly rendered, a suspenseful narrative, and impeccable period details make Woodsburner an exceptional debut. Pipkin tells his story with the verve and authority of a veteran novelist, and the result is a book that, once begun, compels the reader onward to the very last sentence." Ron Rash, author of Serena
"What a terrific tale John Pipkin spins! He has taken a dramatic episode in the life of Thoreau and the history of Concord, Massachusetts, where I have lived for over thirty years, and transformed it into a gripping and profound work of fiction. More than a century and a half ago, my fellow Concordian, Ralph Waldo Emerson said of Walt Whitman. 'I greet you at the beginning of a great career.' The same can now be said to the wonderfully talented Mr. Pipkin." Doris Kearns Goodwin
Woodsburner springs from a little-known event in the life of one of Americas most iconic figures, Henry David Thoreau. On April 30, 1844, a year before he built his cabin on Walden Pond, Thoreau accidentally started a forest fire that destroyed three hundred acres of the Concord woods—an event that altered the landscape of American thought in a single day.
Against the background of Thoreaus fire, Pipkins ambitious debut penetrates the mind of the young philosopher while also painting a panorama of the young nation at a formative moment. Pipkins Thoreau is a lost soul, plagued by indecision, resigned to a career designing pencils for his fathers factory while dreaming of better things. On the day of the fire, his path will intersect with three very different local citizens, each of whom also harbors a secret dream. Oddmund Hus, a lovable Norwegian farmhand, pines for the wife of his brutal employer. Elliott Calvert, a prosperous bookseller, is also a hilariously inept aspiring playwright. And Caleb Dowdy preaches fire and brimstone to his congregation through an opium haze. Each of their lives, like Thoreaus, is changed forever by the fire.
Like Geraldine Brookss March and Colm Tóibíns The Master, Woodsburner illuminates Americas literary and cultural past with insight, wit, and deep affection for its unforgettable characters, as it brings to vivid life the complex man whose writings have inspired generations
About the Author
JOHN PIPKIN was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, and he holds degrees from Washington and Lee University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Rice University. He has taught writing and literature at Saint Louis University, Boston University, and Southwestern University. He currently lives in Austin, Texas with his wife and son.
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