“Rebirth is Possible”
A Review of
A Novel by John Pipkin.
Reviewed by Jonathan Schindler.
The woods are dry. No rain has fallen for some time, and the forest is parched. It awaits either water to sustain it or a spark to set it aflame. Either way, something must change, whether by growth or purgation.
Such is the state of the woods outside Concord in John Pipkin’s debut novel, Woodsburner. Such also is the state of the characters who populate his narrative.
Woodsburner revolves around an event in the life of Henry David Thoreau. In the spring of 1844, Thoreau, presumably to escape the monotony of his life as a pencil designer, spent a day on Fair Haven Pond with his friend Edward Sherman Hoar. Overcome with hunger, he paused in the Concord woods to prepare a fish chowder, lighting a fire that set the forest ablaze. Nearly 300 acres of the woods were destroyed as a result. Against this backdrop Pipkin fills in the details and weaves his tale of longing, destruction, and rebirth.
At the time of the fire, Henry David is in a state of quiet yearning. His life is disappointing. He achieves success at his father’s pencil factory, but he longs for loftier things. He could endure his vocational doom while his brother was alive, but now that he is dead—unexpectedly dispatched by a rusty razor—Henry David has reached the point of despair. He is indecisive, but his indecision has driven him to resignation: He will always be what he is now.
Thoreau’s story is inter-twined with those of an odd, but vividly-portrayed cast of characters. Oddmund Hus is a failure. His family set out for the New World to forget their criminal roots, but within sight of Boston harbor, their boat explodes with Oddmund’s father to blame. Oddmund is the sole survivor of the voyage. After living with a pedophilic uncle who is eventually hanged for his crimes, Oddmund decides he must live apart from society to avoid contaminating others with his Hus blood. His life of isolation works until he meets Emma. He longs to be with her, but is afraid to put his feelings into words. Emma marries another man, and Oddmund must content himself by being Emma’s farmhand instead of husband.
Eliott Calvert is an aspiring playwright who manages a bookstore to pay the bills. He is certain that his writing ability will achieve his fame and fiscal comfort if only he can forget the immediate cares of the world for long enough to finish his play. But he has a family to provide for, and his success in business means less time for him to pursue his own endeavors. Eliott continues expanding his business in the hope that it will eventually become self-sufficient—or that he will find the inspiration to conclude his play.
Caleb Dowdy is a doubting preacher who does not understand the hand of God. The Old World is gone; the New has come. Why, then, does God allow the old decadence to persist? Caleb’s father preached grace, but he was either ignorant or indulgent. In either case, Caleb will correct his father’s shortcomings and make no provisions for the flesh. He has come to set the world on fire, and how he wishes it were already burning.
The characters are interesting, each clearly delineated, and Pipkin is adept at interweaving their stories. It was surprising and enjoyable to see the ways they walk in and out of one another’s stories without taking notice of each other until the fire brings them all together, face-to-face with something they cannot deal with on their own.
Each character tries to piece together the long line of events that result in their present, unhappy situation, but despite their recollections, the fire consistently roars in the background, refusing to be forgotten. Each character has a different reaction to the fire—Henry David dreads it, Oddmund fears it, Eliott looks to it as his Muse, and Caleb welcomes it as the long-overdue judgment of God—but none of them can ignore it. For good or ill, this fire will change each one’s life.
Pipkin’s novel is written in the present tense, which gives it an immediacy that it might otherwise lack. The present tense provides an interesting perspective because it is not coupled with first-person narration, but is told in third person. Each character, while the narrator is in the present, is in the past, parsing details to see if they hold the antidote to his present malaise. Henry David, for instance, is plagued by thoughts of how things could be different: If his brother hadn’t died, if New York had been more hospitable, if that man he met hadn’t given him those matches, the woods would not be on fire. It is not until something demands their immediate attention that the characters are drawn out of their cycle of reliving and forced to live—it is through death that they are given a chance to be reborn.
The setting Pipkin uses in Woodsburner is ripe for the theme of rebirth. America, the New World, is young and still full of opportunity and vitality, which is what draws the Hus family in the first place. The story of the Concord woodsburning put in context of Henry David Thoreau’s future life further provides a hopeful backdrop for the theme of rebirth. Pipkin’s fictional hypothesis—and it may not be too far off — is that without the Concord fire, we would not have Henry David Thoreau as we know him. As Thoreau surveys the damage done by the fire, “[he] knows what he must do. . . . He will build a simple cabin near the pond, perhaps, and study nature’s infinitesimal beauties, as frail as they are profuse. He will commiserate with displaced creatures, tend to the injured woodlands until they revive. And, if they will have him, he will become their steward” (363).
But even in the midst of such opportunity and vitality as the New World provides, one can become complacent through familiarity. Not everyone in the story is changed, even by the fire. Henry David muses, “And these men . . . have stood for a moment on the brink of something greater than themselves. These men have had the precious opportunity to act as men, and now they will return to their groveling lives” (342). For some the fire is just a spectacle; for others, a stern warning; for still others, a devastation. Some can gawk and others can repent, but for those being purged by its terrible grace, they themselves might be saved, but all they have built has been destroyed. But they are still given the opportunity to rebuild and be reborn.
John Pipkin’s Woodsburner serves as a good reminder that there is life and beauty all around us, even in the midst of calamity. The world is continually being renewed and reborn in anticipation of its final renewal, the New World of Revelation 21. Pipkin’s prose is beautiful, his story engaging, and his characters dynamic enough to merit a reading. But most of all, in Woodsburner Pipkin reminds us that rebirth is possible. But while rebirth sometimes requires only a gentle heart-stirring by the river, at other times it requires the jail to be shaken to its foundations or the woods to be set ablaze.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com