NORTH WOODS, by Daniel Mason
Daniel Mason’s historical fictions, including his 2020 story collection “A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth,” brilliantly combine the granularity of realism with the timeless, shimmering allure of myth. His new novel, “North Woods,” promises — and delivers — more of the same.
It begins with a pair of young lovers in colonial New England escaping wrathful judgment in their Puritan village. They flee into the wilds of western Massachusetts, chased by “solemn men … with harquebuses cocked in their elbows.” This is Hawthorne given an injection of breathless Edenic bliss: “Mica dusted her heels like silver. Damselflies upon her neck. Flying squirrels in the trees above them, and in the silty sand the great tracks of cats.” The lovers successfully abscond, yet “North Woods” is not about them. It is about the foundation stone they lay at the chapter’s close, and the yellow house that comes to occupy the spot.
The rest of this impossible-to-summarize novel introduces us to inhabitants of that house over the ensuing three-plus centuries. One of them is Charles Osgood, a Revolution-era Loyalist and autodidact whose memoirs, subtitled “Reminiscences of an Apple-Man,” chart his lifelong “pomomania” — an obsession with apples that leads him to farm a luscious variety he christens Osgood’s Wonder.
When Charles dies, the house passes to his spinster daughters, Alice and Mary, whose fractious relationship ends in tragedy. After them, it goes to a motley succession of owners and visitors who include an abolitionist; a landscape painter; a wealthy manufacturer bent on turning the property into a luxury sportsman’s lodge; and his schizophrenic grandson, whose medical travails are chronicled by a World War II-era lobotomist. Later still, we meet an elderly amateur historian who becomes convinced that bodies are buried on the property.
As for the house, it thrives, lapses into disrepair, is abandoned and revived, all the while serving as a not-quite-silent witness to the lives — and deaths — of its occupants. “North Woods” has an affinity with such object-across-time narratives as Annie Proulx’s “Accordion Crimes,” or the 1998 film “The Red Violin,” which followed the many owners of a Stradivarius over four centuries. A third of the way through, Mason unexpectedly introduces ghosts, aligning his abode with fictional haunted houses from Hill House to the Overlook Hotel.
“North Woods” is a hodgepodge narrative, brazenly disjointed in time, perspective and form. Letters, poems and song lyrics, diary entries, medical case notes, real-estate listings, vintage botanical illustrations, pages of an almanac, modern-day nature photographs, a true-crime detective story, an address to a historical society: Mason stuffs all this (and more!) into his bulging scrapbook of a novel. That “North Woods” proves captivating despite its piecemeal structure is testament to Mason’s powers as a writer, his stylish and supple narrative voice.
The novel lives in its oddments, arrayed for us by an author-collector well versed in pre-modern fruit farming, folk medicine and popular songs through the ages. And language. Mason sprinkles early chapters with archaic words (“higgler,” “pippin,” “paradiddles,” “flams”), and his ear for antique idioms is pitch-perfect. Osgood recalls the rowdy crew he assembled to help him clear land, decrying their “drunkenness and villainy” and lamenting that “no iron fist could stay such ruffians forever.” A few chapters (and half a century) later, a traveling Boston gentleman observes, about New England country homes, that “out here, no one tears down — one just adds upon, agglutinates, house to house, shed to shed, like some monstrous German noun.” By the time the 2020s roll around, at novel’s end, we have received an edifying tour of the history of American speechways.
Grandiose plans, vehement loves, crass betrayals and shocking transgressions play out in this house. In one of the most affecting segments, the property falls in the 1830s to a landscape painter, William Henry Teale, whose letters to his friend, a renowned writer, hint at an affection that exceeds the bounds of acceptability, and point toward a crushing regret.
Mason hits notes of comedy as well. When a local medical practitioner ministers to the young Osgood, prescribing the inhaling of rancid sheep milk to cure his apple mania (Mason, himself a trained physician, knows the history of quackery), the boy observes that “it is not mad to think of fruit.” To which his brother responds: “Sniff, man.”
Across nearly 400 pages we get involved in each of these lives, then move on; the only abiding players in this drama of ineluctable transformation are Nature and Time. Mason maintains a naturalist’s focus on flora and fauna, on the dissolution of bodies and on biological processes as seasons yield to years and to centuries. In one whimsical passage, the erotic entanglement of a vacationing couple before a cabin fireplace in 1956 is juxtaposed with the “sex romps” of two scolytid beetles, described in hilarious detail — “What perfume! Threo-4-methyl-3-heptanol! Alpha-multistriatin!” Their larvae are lodged in the bark of the firewood that the couple bring with them, carrying a malignant spore that in time will kill all the chestnut trees around the yellow house.
From this profusion Mason draws narrative intricacies I can only nod at here. A Bible belonging to a Black family in Canada, a letter written by an anonymous Native American captive, a box of home movies, old bones surfacing in the mud of spring. Documents, artifacts and stories recur across centuries, creating dramatic ironies and invoking ghosts both metaphorical and literal. How to describe Mason’s sui generis fiction? Think of E.L. Doctorow crossed with Wendell Berry, then graced with a Nabokovian predilection for pattern, puzzle and echo.
The last ghost to haunt these enchanted woods — taking the story into the 21st century and peering forward — is a botanical researcher who notes the insignificance of individual human fates. “Indifference,” she reflects, “is what one might call the great lesson of the world.” And yet, the narrator continues, “she still expects a pause, some kind of recognition or acknowledgment.”
The secret of “North Woods,” its blending of the comic and the sublime, lies in the way Mason, deftly toggling between the macro and micro, manages to do both. He not only acknowledges cosmic indifference but celebrates it, even as he pauses to recognize the humans who experience jubilation and heartbreak as they wend their way toward oblivion.
This is fiction that deals in minutes and in centuries, that captures the glory and the triviality of human lives. The forest and the trees: Mason keeps both in clear view in his eccentric and exhilarating novel.
Rand Richards Cooper is the author of two works of fiction and a contributing editor for Commonweal.
NORTH WOODS | By Daniel Mason | Illustrated | 378 pp. | Random House | $28