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Woodsburner

How Thoreau set the Concord woods on fire.

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Henry David Thoreau ... fire starter? The idea is unthinkable – almost like finding photos of Smokey Bear playing with matches. And yet, one spring day in 1844, on a fishing trip with a friend, the 26-year-old lit a campfire that blazed out of control.

By the end of the day, 300 acres of the Concord woods were destroyed. Had the wind been blowing from a different direction, Walden woods and the city of Concord could have been decimated as well.

John Pipkin has had the great good sense to turn this somehow little-known event into a novel, Woodsburner, that manages to be both philosophical and a rollicking good read. As the fire burns, he joins together one conflicted transcendentalist, a farmer’s wife, her farmhand, an opium-addicted preacher who’s come to build a church, two Slavic “witches,” and a bookstore owner who dreams of being a playwright but who makes his profits off somewhat more earthy fare.

By the end of that April day, Thoreau, who had resolved to abandon his writing career to build a better pencil, will instead turn back toward a life tied to nature that would lead to his writing his most famous work, “Walden.” The fire will change other lives as well.

“Woodsburner” is Pipkin’s first novel, but, with its complex structure and top-notch prose, there’s not a page that reads like the work of a novice. His descriptions of fire have both life and a sense of menace, as when Thoreau thinks for a second that he and his friend’s frantic efforts have stamped it out. Then he turns around. “Overhead, he sees a throng of clever flames crouching in the branches of a sleeping birch.”

Pipkin weaves his characters together in unexpected ways, which it would be a shame to say more about. Fire is a recurring motif in everyone’s lives – whether depicted in a stained-glass window or in a more ominous fashion. The farmhand Oddmund, for example, is orphaned by an act of spectacular stupidity, when his father – symbolically erasing his family’s infamous past – sets fire to a scroll on board the ship that carried them to America. The resulting explosion kills everyone except the 10-year-old Norwegian boy. From shore, scavengers observe the destruction of the Sovereign of the Seas:

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