An inglorious episode in the life of 19th-century author and environmental saint Henry David Thoreau is the subject of Pipkin’s impressive debut novel.
In 1844, a year prior to his memorable tenure at Walden Pond, while hiking with a friend on the fringe of woods not far from bustling Concord, Mass., Thoreau impulsively lit a match in dry weather during a high wind, starting a fire that would consume 300 acres of valuable forest and farmland. An initial focus on Henry’s guilt and panic unfolds into ongoing portrayals of the lives of three other men variously affected by the conflagration, as independently lived and as briefly linked to the life of Thoreau. Norwegian immigrant farmhand Oddmund Hus, still haunted by images of the fire ignited when the ship that had borne his family to America exploded in Boston Harbor, yearns for his dour employer’s buxom Irish wife, and agonizes over whether the recent brush fire he tended had made him the inadvertent “woodsburner.” Boston bookseller Eliot Calvert, painfully aware of compromises made to support his demanding family, assists volunteer firefighters manfully, but envisions the catastrophe in relation to the unwritten climax of his (hilariously jejune) stage play. And insanely jealous preacher Caleb Dowdy, long estranged from his more temperate clergyman father, seeks purification for his own sin (withholding the promise of salvation from an innocent man falsely accused of child molestation) in the cleansing power of the great fire. Pipkin tells their stories in a breathlessly exciting present tense, layering in substantial information about the credos and conflicts of the new England Transcendentalists, only occasionally lapsing into expository overkill. The author succeeds brilliantly in portraying a young country struggling to shape its idealistic energies into something concrete and enduring. The consequent successes and failures are movingly encapsulated in “Odd” Hus’s emotional, climactic vision of destruction, rebirth and renewal.
A superb historical fiction as well as a complex and provocative novel of ideas—Pulitzer Prize material.