12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, May 3, 2009
In September 2003, Harper's magazine ran a "Harper's Index" item that read: "Estimated acres of forest Henry David Thoreau burned down in 1844 trying to cook fish he had caught for dinner: 300."
That line became the seed for Austinite John Pipkin's wonderful debut novel, Woods Burner, which recounts the day of the fire from the perspective of Thoreau and the members of the community who come together to battle the conflagration, one that threatened to raze Concord.
Pipkin, who holds a doctorate in romantic poetry from Rice University and served as the executive director of the Writers' League of Texas from 2006 to 2008, draws a detailed picture of then 26-year-old Thoreau as conflicted man, one on the verge of abandoning his literary aspirations.
As the fire smolders around him, the result of an ill-conceived decision to spark a campfire in a tree stump on a windy day in the midst of a drought, he commits himself to a life of pragmatism, vowing, "Henceforth I shall sign my name Henry David Thoreau – Civil Engineer."
Of course, any school-aged child knows that things turned out quite differently. Throughout the novel, Pipkin imagines a series of encounters that galvanize Thoreau and lead him to live in isolation at Walden Pond just one year later.
As the fire rages, all manner of townsfolk, privileged and poor, white and black, are compelled to fight the inferno. At one point the young Thoreau finds himself side-by-side with a man he dubs "Young America," one he's surprised to learn has "lived in the woods, alone." Readers will already know this man is Oddmund Hus, a Norwegian immigrant and farmhand, who is obsessed with his employer's Irish wife, Emma.
It is through these imagined characters (a foppish Boston bookseller, a troubled reverend) that Pipkin depicts the American melting pot, still simmering with strife from the Revolutionary War and preparing to boil into the Civil War.
However didactic and cerebral this may sound, the story is infused with moments of genuine drama, peril and suspense. Woods Burner is edifying, engaging and satisfying, an exemplary illustration of how fiction can illuminate the past, bring history to life and make it feel as fresh and relevant as the present day.