It all begins in Dickeyville, a suburb just inside Baltimore, from the late 1970s to 1980, where five children join in summertime explorations of the woods that border their homes. They make discoveries - about themselves, about the unexpected - and make mistakes, each carrying a dark secret from that last summer that reaches out from the past to make them question all their assumptions about innocence, curiosity, the “increasing carelessness and indifference” of children bored with their toys. It is a tangled history that reaches beyond tomboy Mickey, feminine Gwen, and the wild Halloran brothers, Sean, Tim and Gordon (Go-Go). It is a history that includes the actions of their fathers on a night when a violent hurricane, niggling fear and unexpected rage drive men into the slashing rain determined to do whatever is necessary to protect their children.
Thirty-two years later, the youngest Halloran boy - Go-Go - is dead, either by accident or suicide. The past collides brutally with the present with latent accountability as Lippman unravels the binding knots of childhood friendships, the urgencies and curiosity of adolescence, the natural evolution of loosened bonds and petty jealousies, especially when idyllic childhood memories in the woods turn sour with the loss of innocence, the truth clearly demanded by Go-Go’s death. Middle-aged friends come face to face with the wreckage of their past, the charged emotions of their younger selves, the vanities and impulsiveness of those who still imagine they walk like gods upon the earth. Though the novel’s pages often seem weighted with the secrets of the five and those of their parents, Lippman moves inexorably towards the revelations of that fated summer, fragments that gradually form an image of what really happened that stormy night.
The narrative voice gave me pause, almost the consciousness of the group as person, as each individual is dissected from childhood to middle age, relationships with one another, with their parents, the dissolution of the friendship limed with shame and regret, of terrible mistakes and choices made, of roads not taken: “In time, it was simply too painful to be around each other.” The mythology of childhood is scrutinized, the alliances, emotional commitments, ties to family and the power of secrets, well-intentioned or self-serving. The truth finally laid bare and blame apportioned, the dead are left undisturbed, four friends humbled by the foolishness of youth and the dangerous arrogance of adulthood.
There is no moral high ground but the relief of secrets spoken aloud in a thoughtful, provocative exploration of decisions made in panic, regrets carried into the future like cold stones lodged in the heart. One man, perhaps the most innocent of all, dies from the burden of his silence, the survivors charged with sharing the forbidden, the never-talk-about, at least to one another - an atonement of sorts - the slow-burning embers of guilt finally quenched. Murky territory, Lippman’s tale as dense is its deceptively charm-filled woods. In the end, “We were the most dangerous things in the woods.”