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3.52  ·  Rating Details ·  386 Ratings  ·  95 Reviews
Set against the backdrop of a devastating forest fire that Henry David Thoreau accidentally set in 1844, John Pipkin's novel brilliantly illuminates the mind of the young philosopher at a formative moment in his life and in the life of the young nation.

The Thoreau of Woodsburner is a lost soul, resigned to a career designing pencils for his father's factory while dreaming
Paperback, 384 pages
Published May 4th 2010 by Anchor (first published January 1st 2009)
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Jun 27, 2009 Cynthia rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The stories of four main characters, three fictional, one real, intertwine on one fateful day near 1844 era Concord, MA, the birthplace of transcendentalism. Henry David Thoreau and his friend John Hoar have been fishing in Walden Pond on a hot, dry, windy day in May. John insists they light a fire in the woods so they can make fish stew from the day's catch. Henry (who's recently `rearranged' his name from David Henry) has misgivings but lights the fire anyway. The famous Walden Pond woods fire ...more
Jan 22, 2009 Eileen rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This novel just won the 2009 Mercantile Library/Center for Fiction's Best First Novel Prize!

Move Pipkin's Woodsburner to the top of your reading pile! While Woodsburner is a novel about Henry David Thoreau, it manages to exceed or escape all of the ponderous transcendental baggage that could sink a good story. The Thoreau of the novel is a young pencilmaker who has not yet retreated to Walden; the fire he sets in the Concord woods is the result of a fish chowder gone wrong. Woodsburner is beauti
Geoff Wyss
An . . . interesting book, but I can't really recommend it. On a sentence-by-sentence (and sometimes paragraph-by-paragraph) level, it's often excellent. Pipkin is good at describing things (fire, the woods, sometimes people) and actions (a ship exploding, men fighting a forest fire). The writing is good enough often enough to hold you.

But in larger ways--plot, characterization, theme, in other words all the most important stuff--the book is frequently maddening. The plot (which switches betwee
James Murphy
Aug 09, 2009 James Murphy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
On an April day in 1844 Henry David Thoreau and a friend accidentally caused a fire that consumed about 300 acres of timber and threatened the town of Concord. Woodsburner is about that fire and about how it affects the lives of the novel's wonderful ensemble of characters. Because each of those characters is identified with a fire other than the Concord fire, one could almost say it's a novel about fire. Each character has a fire in their life and it means different things to each of them. Beca ...more
Jim Neeley
A disappoinment, but an interesting read.

I would compare it, in a sense, to an overly produced album, next to a roughly produced low -fi album. One may be technically accomplished but the later has more heart. Woodsburner was an overly produced album, created in a state of the art studio by a good technician. This book, in its description, purported to be about Henry David Thoreau starting a forest fire in Concord just before he moved to Walden Woods, a topic which interested me immensely. Par
Alice Meloy
Aug 08, 2009 Alice Meloy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The premise of the book is a true story: Henry David Thoreau one day accidentally set a fire that spread and burned down 300 acres of the woods near Concord, Massachusetts. This was BEFORE he moved to a cabin on Walden Pond and wrote his famous book, and could have been the impetus for his decision to stop making pencils for his father and start contemplating philosophy and nature. At least that's what Pipkin would have us think happened in this beautifully written debut novel that explores the ...more
Feb 14, 2013 Suzanne rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A tthe beginning, I thought this would be a 3-star book. I was almost sorry that I had committed to it. I was in a really busy time at work and only reading before bed and kept falling asleep. But once I had bigger chunks of time to devote to these characters, I really enjoyed their stories. To me, the story is less about Henry David Thoreau and more about the ficitonal characters who are impacted by his setting fire to the woods. Once the complexities of each characgter were revealed to me, I h ...more
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, H
Apr 08, 2015 Sue rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
A friend gave me this book to read. He told me he loved it so much that he wanted to share it with someone else whom he knew would also love it and I was to pass it on to someone else. Unfortunately I didn't love it as much as he did. The set-up of "Woodsburner" is usually my favorite. An actual historical event happens, in this case the accidental fire in the woods near Concord MA in the mid-1800s, and the author tells us the stories of several individuals affected by the fire, switches back an ...more
AJ Conroy
Jun 11, 2009 AJ Conroy marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
From NPR:

Woodsburner, by John Pipkin, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, Hardcover, 370 pages, List Price: $24.95

True fact: One year before he built his cabin on Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau accidentally scorched 300 acres of the Concord woods. In Woodsburner, John Pipkin's lyrical debut novel, Pipkin re-creates the events of that day from the perspective of Thoreau and several other Concord residents — an opium-addicted preacher, a pompous bookseller and, in some of the novel's most flat-out beautifu
Aug 06, 2009 Chris rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Great novelization of one afternoon in Concord, Mass, in 1844, when America's first great environmentalist, Henry David Thoreau, set a fire that burned 300 acres of woods to the ground, indeed threatening Concord itself. My friend Andrew Lenaghan handed my a galley copy of this first novel by John Pipkin, and I swear you can smell the pine pitch combusting. Pipkin seems to develop a set of theories about Thoreau here, one of which I think is that had he not suffered the shame of having torched t ...more
Richard Gilbert
This beautifully written literary novel depicts the incident in which Thoreau of pre-fame and pre-Walden days accidentally started a forest fire that burned 300 acres. I love Thoreau so found the chapters on him compelling. The author did a lot of research and has a nice light touch with it. The book alternates POV characters on the day of the fire, and some of them I found fascinating and some boring and began to skim them. This is a celebrated novel but is nonetheless very slow moving and only ...more
Ann Woodlief
Jun 18, 2009 Ann Woodlief rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In 1844 Thoreau accidentally set the woods near Concord on fire. This is a book about that fateful day, and how it marks a major turning point for him and 3 other characters caught up in fighting the fire. I know the time, place, and person pretty well, and I think that Pipkin "gets it." He builds on what facts are known, and finds the drama in complex motivations. This Thoreau is no hero, but he's on his way (at age 26, finally).
Mar 12, 2013 Kathryn rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was a good-paced, interesting historical fiction read. It is based on the true event of Henry David Thoreau setting fire to the woods near Concord, Massachusetts in the early 1840s. The other characters in the book are fictional as are their story lines, with the exception of Henry David's friend, Edward. I enjoyed this book.
Jul 30, 2009 Edan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a beautiful and wise book that hasn't gotten much attention. It was a slow beginning for me, but an early description of a man fucking a pumpkin (my words) won me over. I loved these characters, especially poor Oddsmund, with his dead family and his love for fat Emma. Oh!
Jul 25, 2009 Karen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Who knew Thoreau was responsible for burning down 300 acres of woods outside of Concord? As the fire spreads, the story reveals it effect on several characters appropriate to the time. The writing is beautiful.
Anna Carrie
Apr 18, 2013 Anna Carrie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Beautiful prose. Flawed characters that evoke sympathy. Hopeful, wistful, and horrible moments are all captured honestly and precisely. And an ending that left me delightfully satisfied. If you are interested in historical or literary fiction, this needs to be on your list.
Jul 04, 2009 Cathy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is one of the best books I've read in a long time. Thoroughly entertaining and loads of little gems throughout. Highly recommended!
May 05, 2009 Melissa rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Dallas Morning News review. . .
Jun 29, 2011 Tom rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: american-novel
Pipkin has lots of talent for vivid, lyrical description.
He does not, however, have much talent for sympathetic imagination.
As a result, his Thoreau comes off as a wooden nonfictional figure dropped into a fictional world of made-up characters with whom he has no idea what to talk about. Instead he has thoughts and mutters lines that simply confirm what anyone familiar with Walden already knows. To his credit, Pipkin seems to have figured out early that either he couldn't find a way into HDT's s
Open Loop Press
In Woodsburner, John Pipkin's first work of historical fiction, the Henry David Thoreau whose shadow looms large over American letters is an uncertain artist, a contemplative pencil maker, and an accidental fire-starter.

What lesson then, Henry asks himself, is his current experience awakening? He knew when he struck the match that there had been no rain for weeks. He knew the wind was strong, the grass dry, the woods asleep. These are not bits of innate wisdom; they are universal truths that tra
In 1844, Henry David Thoreau accidentally set the woods surrounding Concord, Massachusetts on fire, burning over 300 acres of forest and several farms. Luckily, the fire was contained before it could reach nearby Walden Pond, where Thoreau would eventually live as a recluse and write his famous transcendentalist reflection, Walden by Henry David ThoreauWalden, the following year.

This book takes the Concord Woods fire of 1844 and uses it to frame an exploration into the minds and personalities of not only Thoreau, but also s
Aug 02, 2010 Marcy rated it it was amazing
This is a wonderful and thought provoking story about five main characters whose deep philosophies are told one by one, chapter by chapter, as each reflects upon his/her past and present life. One character is Henry David Thoreau, who, by accident, starts a fire in the the woods, which eventually destroys over 300 acres of land. (This part is true). The other characters who we come to know well before the fire, change in some way as they fight the fire in unison.

1. Caleb, the preacher who is fi
Jun 10, 2009 Rich rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Is a person's fate within their control, or is it written in the stars? John Pipkin explores the possibilities in this novel. It is well written and and engaging even as multiple characters, each with their own story and motivation are revealed.

Each character struggles with who they currently are, and who they want to be; this makes Henry David Thoreau an excellent choice as one of the voices because most of his own writing is concerned with living deliberately.

Thoreau's character has not yet em
Thing Two

I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, it was full of beautiful sentences, vividly described scenes, and characters I could remember. The story is loosely based on an actual event in the life of David Henry Thoreau (who later became Henry David). The author did a good job of weaving the little amount known of the day Thoreau set fire to the woods around Concord, Massachusetts into a story of four persons fighting the fire - a priest, a farmer, a writer, and Thoreau. Their stories d
Jun 01, 2011 Noëlibrarian rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I wish I could give this book 6 stars, because it does so well the strange job of capturing that certain spirit that infuses much of my favorite American mid-19th century literature: A compelling mix of questing, Westward Expansion tempered by a sorrow for the loss of innocence of the New World, with an overlay of bizarre spiritual beliefs ranging from Puritanism to pantheism. I have a soft place in my heart for Henry David Thoreau, perhaps because he reminds me of the better angels of my own ad ...more
Beautiful writing and an interesting presentation of Henry David Thoreau's possibly pivotal moment of his environmental theories & formulations.
But there were 2 or 3 inclusions I found unnecessary and distracting- the pornographic book plates as well as the "witches" were oddly unnecessary. And Caleb was completely annoying.
The jumping from character to character was instrumental in fast development of each person's history and actions, but seemed a facile way to achieve those ends. And giv
Jul 03, 2009 Mike rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Hugely disappointing. For anyone looking for insight into Thoreau's life and thought before he built his cabin near Walden Pond, you'll be disappointed too. All I learned really was a little bit about the manufacture of pencils. Thoreau accidentally sets the woods ablaze, and we learn about the lives of diverse individual whom the fire impacts. One character was a loner and had lived in isolation in the forest. One character is overwhelmed by a family and a mortgage. You get the idea. Of course, ...more
Jul 23, 2014 Kristi rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I had been waiting to read this novel for a few years, and my anticipation was disappointed. The plot, which was inspired by a real-historical incident, revolves around the loosely interconnecting stories of three fictional characters and Henry David Thoreau, following the historical fire that Thoreau accidentally set in the Concord woods. At times Pipkin's writing is beautifully evocative, but mostly I found the novel contrived and not compelling. Other than a brief passage of sympathy with "Em ...more
Not really what I expected and it took a while to get into it- maybe I was resisting having to read it to a schedule for discussion group. The f2f discussion was very lively and I think it left me with a better feeling for the book than the actual reading did. I did appreciate the way the author brought so many threads together into a complex tapestry where everyone connected somehow to everyone else and all contributed something to Thoreau's eventual "philosophy". I liked the character of Oddm ...more
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“Every second of every day, a man is the sum effect of every second that has touched him before; he routinely encounters influences that will produce changes and actions that he cannot begin to predict or understand. And yet to acknowledge the complexity of these causes and motives was not to disallow agency. In that, all men are equal, even the cloistered monk--equally innocent, equally guilty. A man is not wholly responsible for what he becomes, but he is absolutely accountable for who he is.” 6 likes
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