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WOODS BURNER

By John Pipkin
New York: Doubleday, 2009 ISBN: 978-0-385-52865-8 367 pages

Bob Corbett
November 2015

John Pipkinís creative and fascinating novel takes as its inspiration and starting point a fire which Henry David Thoreau and his friend Edward Hore accidently started in the woods near their home in the Concord area outside Boston. The incident took place in 1844. This was not a kids prank or accident. Thoreau was 27 and his friend Edward was a college aged fellow studying at Harvard.

The two young men had been floating on a canoe-like boat on the river, caught a few fish and decided to fry them up. It was a good deal more windy than they realized and as Thoreau started to cook up the fish the winds took the fire and quickly spread it. The two young men knew almost immediately this was a serious problem. The fire was spreading quickly and their meagre immediate efforts to put out the fire were failing. The woods were burning and the fire was heading at an alarming rate toward the small near-by town of Concord.

Edward hurried to the boat to try to get to Concord by that route, and Thoreau set off on foot hurrying as best he could on foot, so one of the two could get there in time to get help.

These opening few pages are the bulk of the historical detail of the novel. While news of the fire was printed the next few days in Boston and other newspapers, Thoreau himself never wrote about it until 6 or so years after the event. However, author John Pipkin creates a gripping, funny, informative and extremely imaginative novel around the bare bones of this fire, creating some of the most wonderful fictional characters Iíve read in a long time.

It is the last day of April, 1844. The two young men have set off toward Concord to get help and to try to save the town. Edward is in their boat. Thoreau is running through the woods, but wearing down quickly. He meets up with the man whom I found as the most fascinating of a significant list of marvelous characters, Oddmund Glus. Heís a year younger than Thoreau, a sort of vagabond living in the woods, but much more able than Thoreau to undertake the run to Concord. So, he takes over that task and Thoreau sort of sits most of it out, sitting on a hill observing!

There isnít much suspense in the novel. The readers realize very early on that Concord will survive the fire and it will be stopped. We just donít know the details. But this novel isnít really about the fire itself. Rather, it is about the half-dozen or so simply fascinating characters that John Pipkin creates.

Iíve mentioned my favorite Oddmund Glus, known as Odd. He was born in Oslo the year before Thoreau was born. On the ship coming to the U.S. his father accidently caused a fire that exploded their ship as it arrives into Boston harbor and Odd is the sole survivor. He struggles desperately for survival on the streets of Boston as a five year old and eventually goes to an orphanage, and surprisingly is found and adopted by an uncle who also lived in Boston.

However, this uncle turns out to be a notorious pedophile, though he always treats Odd very well, yet he is finally executed for his evil deeds. This leaves Odd with a life-long fear that he, too, has the tendency toward pedophilia. However, he is in love with a grown woman, Emma, of close to his own age who is married to a drunk and wife-beater, but Odd always doubts his own motives toward Emma.

Emma is another of the simply fascinating characters. She was born in Ireland living in Donegal in the 1830s where the early days of the potato famine began. Eventually she is the sole survivor of her family and makes her way to the U.S. She is quite heavy, having been so utterly terrified of starvation that after her survival in the U.S. she just eats too too much all the time.

Then there is Eliot Calvert, a would be playwright, who is a book seller and is trying to live his dream though he seems to have little talent. He is, I believe, the central character, unless Odd slightly beats him out for that honor.

There are two simply fascinating women from Bohemia. Anezkova Havlic is about 30 and her partner is Zalenka Dusekova about 40. The came to U.S. out of necessity. In their native land these two married women met, fell in love and became a lesbian couple. They are first jailed, then released and came to the U.S. Their story, much too short in the novel, is gripping, but alas, we learn too little about them and their struggle.

Mr. Woburn, Emmaís older husband is a disgusting drunk. Rev. Caleb Ephraim Dowdy is a nearly insane fundamentalist preacher living in Concord. The list goes on and on with amazing characters whom Pipkin creates, giving more space in the novel to the development of this huge assortment of people than he does to the story of the fire itself.

I simply LOVED this novel. It was gripping, funny, astonishing, informative of the times and nature of life of the times and simply brilliantly written. It was one of those books that I pick up, take a look at, and am so hooked that I read it with every free second I can get for the couple of days it takes me to read it through.

I highly recommend this marvelous novel, WOODS BURNER.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu