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Friday, May 1st, 2009
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Strikingly, Thoreau Meets His Match

A review by Ron Charles

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 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.

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