In Woodsburner, John Pipkin's first work of historical fiction, the Henry David Thoreau whose shadow looms large over American letters is an uncertainIn 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 transcend experience; these are the lessons that one pieces together from living. (Pg. 44.)
Thus Thoreau, philosopher, environmentalist, champion of individualism, accidentally sets fire to the Concord Woods on April 30, 1844, beginning John Pipkin’s exploration of five lives on the cusp of change. We meet a handful of Americans, each seeking a better life: an Evangelical preacher, a Norwegian immigrant, a housewife with a love of books, a playwright with a day job, and the young Thoreau, each of whom is, like their homeland, at a crossroads. So the broken peace of a New England afternoon offers us a look at America in transition. The War of Independence is at it’s back and the Civil War is on the horizon; this is a country in search of its identity.
And then a tree collapses across the line of men. No one is injured, but the fire crosses this bridge to new quarry and the flames spread to the trees flanking the men. Henry sees a dismal proof in this. Nature will not be outfoxed so long as chance is her ally. Men exhaust a disproportionate sum of energy in a vain effort to prevent nature from doing what she will: damming rivers, filling swamps, leveling hills, clearing fields, claiming land from the sea. The cities of America are the hosts of gratuitous transformation, aberrant changes that, once left unguarded, will revert to what was. (Pg. 275.)
This little-known historical event, briefly mentioned in Thoreau’s journals and cursorily covered in the papers of the day, is, in its brevity, rich soil for the writer’s imagination. Could the fire, Pipkin wonders, have compelled Thoreau to go into the woods?
Even when the wind blows away from town, the smell has so permeated carpets and curtains and clothing and living trees that the evidence of his guilt is discernable. People carry kerchiefs held to nose and mouth like bandits. The townspeople of Concord are grateful to have been spared, but their gratitude is soon overtaken by anger. Henry cannot walk the streets of Concord without suffering icy stares and hearing behind his back the angry, accusing whisper: woodsburner. (Pg. 361.)
As Pipkin reveals the events of the day, he shows us we are not so different from the people of the past. They felt, as we feel, love and fear, excitement and fatigue, hope and doubt. This is the goal of John Pipkin’s fiction: to show us, by awakening the imagination, that stories about the past have much to teach us about the present; they help us understand who we are today.