John Pipkin
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Buy *Woodsburner* by John Pipkin online

John Pipkin
Nan A. Talese
384 pages
April 2009
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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“Woodsburner” is a word that carries the weight of a heinous accusation, a threat to life and property in a particularly dry season in Concord, Massachusetts in 1884. When Henry David Thoreau and his friend Edward Sherman Hoar build a small fire to make a fish chowder of their catch from a nearby pond, the eager flames hop from grass to branch.

Ruminating over his love of nature and his decision to leave his father’s successful pencil factory and dedicate his life to philosophy, Thoreau is horrified by the quickly spreading flames. Flailing at the random conflagrations that spring up around them, Henry and Edward take off in different directions to get help.

Thoreau argues with himself that nature cannot be harnessed by man, the blaze sparking an internal debate of his lifelong mission and career as an environmental protector. Meanwhile, nature’s rampage threatens unabated, the nearby village of Concord threatened if townspeople cannot beat back the furious flames.

Three pivotal characters converge on Concord, only one with a frantic message of the impending catastrophe. Oddmund Hus, a solitary Norwegian farmhand, reluctantly leaves the object of his obsession, Emma Woburn, plump wife of his employer, to carry the news to Concord. On his way, Oddmund considers his solitary life and his feelings for the zaftig wife of his employer, Hus a man with few aspirations and a great heart.

Quite another personality arrives at the village for a clandestine business transaction and to inspect a local shop for rent. Eliot Calvert, pragmatist and aspiring playwright, is considering opening another bookstore, envious of another shopkeeper’s reputation for informed philosophical discourse at his establishment.

Reverend Caleb Dowdy, unlikely purveyor of God’s word, heads directly towards the fire. Caleb fraternizes with the most depraved children of God, preaches “the path to Revelation [comes] through damnation.” A secret convert to the hallucinations of opium, Caleb is in search of salvation, the blaze God’s answer to his prayers.

As panic spreads and men gather to beat back the flames, ideas and personalities clash, Thoreau complaining to a stubborn Calvert that “a man cannot simplify halfway.” Single-minded, Oddmund puts his back into the hard work while Caleb searches for release in the purity of flame.

Pipkin perfectly captures the soul of young America, an urge to forge a new way of living, harnessing the mind as well as the body. Preacher, philosopher, businessman and farmhand meet on a fiery field of battle, a new country bursting with energy and ideas yet plagued with the consequences of man’s hubris.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Luan Gaines, 2009

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