Many are the delights and wonders of Daniel Mason’s North Woods, a novel so lush with stories and moods that it defies adequate description.
The story begins when a young couple are driven from their Puritan colony—him for reputedly consorting with heathens, and her to escape marriage to a minister twice her age—to a wild, idyllic place in the north woods. Then we shift to a vivid captivity tale, in which a young mother and her child are kidnapped from their village by Native American raiders and deposited by their captors into the care of an old woman living in an ancient hut in the north woods; eventually, soldiers arrive with ideas other than rescue. Next there is a memoir by one Charles Osgood, a veteran of the French and Indian War, worrisomely obsessed with finding and propagating the perfect apple. Osgood dies fighting on the loyalist side of the American Revolution and leaves his orchards to his twin daughters, Alice and Mary. Divided by jealousy and bound by love and guilt, they bring destruction to the orchards and his flocks.
Later a slave hunter stalks an escapee on her way to Canada. A 19th-century painter writes revelatory letters to his beloved and famous novelist friend. The sensual, alluring charlatan Madame Rossi arrives to conduct a seance. Included amid these stories are verses, riddles, ballads and even an erotic tale of the elm bark beetle. The inhabitants, owners, visitors, ghosts and the very forest itself transform over time. On it goes, in love and madness, to the present day.
North Woods is a love poem to the human and natural history of Western Massachusetts. One of the novel’s enticements is the exuberant descriptions of evolving nature. Another is discerning the relationships among the succession of occupants here in the north woods. Most brilliant of all is the novel’s daring storytelling, through which its tales come spectacularly to life. They are wise, profound, chilling, carnal and funny. North Woods is an amazing and deeply pleasurable tour de force.