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Erica’s Pick of the Week: North Woods

I am not a gambler. Slot machines make me tense. I refuse to fill out basketball brackets. I have bought a lottery ticket precisely once in my life.

The one thing I am willing to gamble on is a book, especially if I can even the odds. Case in point: I like old houses and New England, so when I read that Daniel Mason’s North Woods followed the inhabitants of a New England home across four centuries, I decided to roll the literary dice.

Unlike that lotto ticket, North Woods paid off. Gorgeously written, thought-provoking, and surprisingly emotional, it’s one of my favorite titles of the year.

As promised, North Woods is the story of a house. It’s not famous, or sinister, or architecturally significant. It’s just…a house. There’s nothing remarkable about it, except for the people who live there. For them, it’s home, as distinctive and extraordinary as the inhabitants themselves.

The story begins when two young lovers flee their Puritan settlement for the Massachusetts woods. With each chapter, new people come to their cabin in the forest searching for something: sanctuary, redemption, fortune, a fresh start. The sprawling, vividly drawn cast includes a British soldier, a desperate mother, and a true crime reporter, among others. The characters are fallible and funny and vulnerable; while each appears for only one chapter, it’s impossible not to be drawn into their lives.

The story unfurls over centuries in poignant, powerful vignettes. Gradually, connections between characters are revealed – some subtle, some supernatural – but it’s not a typical “haunted house.” Rather, the sense of home is so intrinsic to the story, that the past can’t help but echo forward.

This is a historical fiction in the deepest sense: a very narrow, very thorough exploration of a singular place. The woods transform alongside the house, from wilderness to orchard to pasture and back again, with the changes chronicled in rich, effortless prose. Whether he’s talking about chestnut blight or the human heart, Mason’s writing is imaginative, precise, and immersive; it’s an absolute pleasure to read.

North Woods is the story of a house. But really, it’s a story about what it means to be human: how messy, impermanent, and precious life is. It’s both entertaining and profoundly moving, a feat of writing for fans of George Saunders and Barbara Kingsolver. If there’s such a thing as a sure bet, North Woods is it.

Categories: Books and More

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