Woods Burner by John Pipkin
(Nan A. Talese, April 2009)
Reviewed by Gretchen Bearce (Pella, Iowa)
In 1844 Henry David Thoreau had not yet gone to the woods at Walden Pond, nor published any of his writing. A young man at loose ends, working for his father in a pencil-making firm, he and a companion took a short camping and fishing trip. In an attempt to make lunch of fish chowder, Thoreau started a fire which quickly got away from him and in the course of several hours burned 300 acres, mostly woods, as well as three farms.
Intersperesed with the philosophical musings of Thoreau, the reader gets to know the three other main characters, each portraying a facet of American life of the time. Oddmund Hus is a recent immigrant working as a farmhand, Eliot Calvert is a Boston bookseller and Caleb Dowdy is a fire and brimstone “the end is near” preacher. Put together as they react to the fire, a good picture emerges of the forces influencing thought in New England and consequently what, at the time, constituted America prior to the Civil War.
This book is thoughtful and thought provoking but a bit tedious in parts. The characters mentioned and secondary characters are all fleshed out with distinctive personalities to give a rounded view of the effect of the fire on all of them. The effect on Thoreau is profound. His guilt in starting the fire caused people to point him out as the “woods burner”. He left his father’s business and “went to the woods” at Walden Pond and from there comes the iconic writing for which he became known.