Novelists tend to address the increasingly evident effects of climate change in the same way they tackle disturbing social or political developments: by imagining a future, usually dystopian, that accentuates what’s at stake. Daniel Mason takes a welcome different approach in his latest novel, “North Woods,” peering into the past to chronicle what has already been lost by observing a single plot of land in Western Massachusetts over roughly three centuries. While not climate fiction per se, at its heart — and in its best moments — “North Woods” is a tender lament for our vanishing earthly paradise.
An evolving cast of characters passes through the property, embracing its natural bounty and adapting the land to serve specific needs, but only a couple of these folks stick around long enough to make permanent impressions on either their surroundings or the reader. Fealty toward nature or oneself takes precedence over obligations toward others, as again and again these fallible men and women fall victim to sins of envy, lust, and wrath, or simple human weaknesses like loneliness and doubt. Mason supplements conventional narrative with a sensationalist true crime exposé, psychiatric case files, an epistolary love affair, (rather tedious) olde-timey ballad lyrics, and an anonymous 18th-century memoir given a dose of verisimilitude via some period-appropriate grammatical tweaks — think murderd instead of murdered, poyson instead of poison. Some of these devices are more fanciful than fulfilling, but Mason’s clearly having fun with form.
The novel opens with a brief, breezy episode in the early 1700s when two unnamed English colonists flee their community to live off the land, and are overtly set up as the Adam and Eve to the novel’s Garden of Eden. She “felt like she had sprung from” him when he wooed her; they reach “the valley on the seventh day.” Two centuries later, these scriptural allusions persist when the property’s then-owner tells a visitor, “This is Eden.” (The novel also includes a jealousy-driven sororicide, a la Cain and Abel.)
“North Woods”'s most charming resident is Major Charles Osgood, an Englishman who “came to America for war” but ends up, after a combat injury in the French and Indian wars, dedicating his life to horticulture. After tasting the fruit of a solitary apple tree, Osgood buys the surrounding 500 acres, including our unnamed Adam and Eve’s original residence. He grafts this tantalizing tree and in five years has an orchard of newly christened Osgood Wonder apples. In the years before he again dons his Redcoat to fight against the upstart 13 colonies, Osgood imbues his twin daughters, Alice and Mary, with a dogmatic love of and respect for the business, which they continue until their sixty-something spinsterhoods when they start raising sheep to alleviate the pressure on the fruit crop.
During the 1800s, the property is bought by William Henry Teale, a landscape painter whose story begins with his love letters to a sensitive poet and concludes with his Portuguese caregiver’s recollections. By the time Teale dies, the house has swelled to “four roofs, ten fireplaces, [and] eighteen rooms,” but nature has, in one sense, maintained its primacy by infesting the residence with the detritus from Teale’s “life of scavenging. Strips of bark and withered clumps of fungus. Bones of animals. Piles of porcupine quills. Dried grey tufts of goldenrod, cracked pods of milkweed, fern fronds, jars with insect specimens.”
In the 1900s, the property is largely occupied by Farnsworths, most memorably Lilian and her children, Robert and Helen. Robert explores the property with the gusto of the Osgood sisters, but his wanderings are compelled by imagined tormenters he calls the “Harrow” and his belief that his walks stitch together ruptures in the fabric of civilization. Mason, who teaches psychiatry at Stanford University, sensitively explores Robert’s various mental health issues while also embracing the freedoms of fiction to craft a sinister, opportunistic doctor pushing to lobotomize Robert.
Mason’s attentiveness to the natural world is bold and knowledgeable, documenting the minutiae of the forest’s changing seasons, the introduction of invasive species, the heyday of apex predators, and the arrival of existential threats in the elm bark beetle and chestnut blight. He seems more hesitant to fully engage with the iniquities of America’s past, however, or at least to present it unremarked upon. When Esther, an 18-year-old enslaved girl, shelters in the abandoned Osgood home, her story is told by Phelan, the slave catcher trying to return her and her child to Maryland. But Phelan is a feel-good version of evil, a reluctant, misunderstood monster who actually “hated the dirtiness of the business, hated the greed of the men who pushed their slaves beyond breaking.” Other characters have jarringly anachronistic ideas, too, as when the tweenaged Mary wishes for “a word for [the] particular kind of explaining boys did to girls” and the colonialist Eve empathizes with Native Americans who massacred a village by noting that “for each of us there were a hundred of them that had been stolen from their homes.”
Toward its conclusion, “North Woods” increasingly cannibalizes the characters and legacies of its early chapters so it can tie everything together in an unwieldy, if genuinely romantic, bow. As with the moralizing modern sensibilities and playfully quixotic storytelling, the novel is maybe trying to do too much, but overall it’s hard not to come away feeling a bit wistful, seeing what we’ve lost and imagining what lies ahead in our probably dystopian future.
By Daniel Mason
Random House, 384 pages, $28
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and critic.