Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Book Review: Woodsburner by John Pipkin

Historical Fiction is probably one of the harder genres for an author to succeed in, especially when it is not written as a sub-genre of Mystery, True Crime or Romance novels. Taking historical people and events and placing them within a fictional narrative can be a precarious balancing act; too much historical accuracy can weigh down a story, while taking too many liberties can unintentionally turn the whole thing into a farce. Tackling a historical literary figure can be even more daunting, as readers familiar with the author's works will no doubt possess their own vision of his or her personality.

With this in mind, John Pipkin took a perilous task in hand when he decided to pen a fictionalized account of Henry David Thoreau's accidental act of wildfire arson in Woodsburner: A Novel. His theory that Thoreau's unintentional decimation of 300 acres of woodland forest might have sparked the emotional and philosophical journey that would inspire much of his later works (most notably Walden) is intriguing. But Pipkin's interest isn't merely academic; Woodsburner strives to understand and examine the spiritual journey that would sprout from such a traumatic event, and on this level he succeeds.

The pace and tone of Woodsburner matches the style of its subject. Not a thrilling page-turner, it is instead casual and reflective, admiring the landscape (of both the Massachusetts wilderness and mid 1800s) the as it examines and dwells upon it. Switching the narrative between three other main (fictional) characters besides Thoreau as the fire spreads and builds gives the reader a perspective of perceptions and realities that aids in the illustration of Thoreau's personal journey, and helps to further explore the time period. In short, Pipkin handily succeeds in turning a historical footnote into a provoking and engaging novel.

Woodsburner has enough heart and soul for readers interested in the motivations and decisions characters make, flavor and detail for people looking for the historical perspective of the time period, and penetrating prose for those hungry for a more personal look at a famous literary figure.

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