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Woodsburner: A Novel
by John Pipkin

Published: 2009-04-28
Hardcover : 384 pages
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Recommended to book clubs by 1 of 1 members
My debut novel, Woodsburner, is based on a forest fire accidentally started by Henry David Thoreau in 1844, a year before he built his cabin at Walden Pond. The fire destroyed three hundred acres of the Concord Woods and altered the course of American literary history in a single day. During ...
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Introduction

My debut novel, Woodsburner, is based on a forest fire accidentally started by Henry David Thoreau in 1844, a year before he built his cabin at Walden Pond. The fire destroyed three hundred acres of the Concord Woods and altered the course of American literary history in a single day. During the fire, Thoreau's path intersects with three locals haunted by unfulfilled dreams: Oddmund Hus, a farmhand pining for the woman he cannot have; Eliot Calvert, a bookseller and inept aspiring playwright; and Caleb Dowdy, an opium-addicted preacher. All of their lives are forever changed by the tragedy that unfolds.

Editorial Review

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Excerpt

CHAPTER 1
Henry David
They shall say I ought to have known better. This is what occurs to Henry David as he squats on the bank of Fair Haven Bay, a third of the distance from Mount Misery to the center of Concord. The flibbertigibbets shall call me “wastrel” and “rascal.” These thoughts surprise him, coming as they do seemingly from the ether. He cannot account for what causes the thoughts that flit through his head like so much pollen, but he keeps a faithful record in his journals, certain that one day he will make something of them. The gossips and flibbertigibbets with little else to occupy their minds shall call me “wastrel” and “rascal.” Henry has heard these insults before, dismissive whispers trailing just within earshot, but the words surprise him now, coming as they do seemingly from the ether, mute and without cause. He wants only to light a small fire, enough to cook a simple meal, nothing more, hardly an undertaking momentous enough to give rise to premonitions such as these. He tells himself he will record them later in his journal along with the other indiscriminate thoughts that flit through his head like so much pollen. He is certain that one day he will make something of them, or will at least belatedly reckon their import. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

1) In Walden, published ten years after the events described in Woodsburner, Thoreau says that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” How are the characters in Woodsburner leading lives of quiet desperation before they encounter the fire?

2) How does each character in Woodsburner pursue the American Dream? Does every character find it?

3) Why is it so difficult for Oddmund Hus to relate to other people and form friendships? Why does he avoid confessing his love for Emma Woburn, even before she is married?

4) Is the romance between Oddmund and Emma a traditional love story?

5) Is Emma more independent and self-assured than the other characters? Why do you think she agrees to marry Silas Woburn?

6) What contradictions seem to shape Eliot Calvert's view of the world? Are his troubles the result of external conflicts, or are they the result of his own conflicting desires?

7) At the novel's end, do you think that Caleb Dowdy finds the answers he is looking for?

8) Do Anezka and Zalenka come to America for the same reasons that attract some of the other characters? How is their view of the New World's promise similar or different from the other characters?

9) What role does redemption play in the novel? Which characters find redemption and where do they find it?

10) What does Thoreau's experience with the fire suggest about the abundance of natural resources in the New World?

11) How does Thoreau's fire serve as a catalyst for change in each character's life?

12) What do the events in Woodsburner suggest about the influence of cause and effect in development of individual lives and of American history?

13) This story takes place in 1844, but how are the challenges faced by these characters relevant today? Are the lessons they learn still applicable in the modern world?

14) What parts of Thoreau's life, as described in the novel, did you find surprising? Did the novel change your view of Thoreau in any way?

15) A little more than a year after the fire, Thoreau's builds his famous cabin at Walden Pond so that he can live alone in the woods. Do you think that the fire in 1844 influenced his decision in any way? How?





Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

I wanted to write a book about the origins of the American Dream.

In July 2003, I came across a line in Harper's magazine citing a forest fire that Henry David Thoreau accidentally started in 1844 while trying to cook fish. This forgotten event gave me the opportunity to unite several ideas in Woodsburner. Thoreau's story is true; at the time of the fire, Thoreau was an unknown pencil maker, riddled with self-doubt. The novel's fictional characters-Oddmund Hus, Eliot Calvert, Caleb Dowdy, and Emma Woburn-all reflect the uncertainty and promise of life in pre-Civil War America.

Woodsburner is part love story and part adventure. Set in a time that witnessed the dawn of the environmentalist movement, Woodsburner is a tale of converging historical forces, a meditation on causes and effects, and an examination of Americans' hopes and doubts and dreams.

Most importantly, the story is about ordinary people whose needs and worries and desires really differed little from our own. I believe Thoreau's observation that the mass of men lead lives of “quiet desperation” is as relevant today as it was 150 years ago, and that now, as then, the answers are right in front of us.

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Member Reviews

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  "Woodsburner - A Fun Read"by operalover (see profile) 08/22/09

The book has great, well written characters that are interesting and funny. Everyone enjoyed the book.

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