North Woods by Daniel Mason 2023

Mason, a psychiatrist at Stanford, has written a remarkable and compelling novel in which the main character is a house, originally built sometime in the 17th C, added on to through the 20th C, and crumbling into disuse at the present time.

Beginning with two young members of an English colony in New England who escape the religious strictures of their Colony to live together in nature along a small stream in the deep woods of what will become Western Massachusetts, Mason puts together a multitude of characters in bringing the reader and the house up to the current moment. Along the way, he uses poems, songs, medical notes, real estate ads and other material to stitch all of these stories together.

And what incredible stories they are—the original runaway couple who built a stone house and the woman who married a Native American after her ‘husband’ died sometime in the 17th C, a woman and her child kidnapped by a Native American raiding party who survive the advances of three British soldiers, a British major who retired after the French and Indian War and who discovered the Osgood Wonder apple growing along the stream, his twin daughters who subsisted on the sales of those apples and who raised Merino sheep, a runaway slave and her baby and the bounty hunter who tried to capture them, the real life painter William Henry Teale and novelist Erasmus Nash whose ‘Brokeback Mountain’ relationship blossomed in that setting, an Azorean native nurse who cared for Teale in his last days, a hunter/industrialist and his wife who wanted to turn the house into a hunting lodge and later their daughter and her schizophrenic son and independent daughter, a Jewish amateur historian searching for the original woman’s grave, and finally a Cambodian graduate student whose car ends up in the stream.

Does that sound complex and far-fetched?  Well it is, but Mason’s superb writing, his poems/songs at each transition, and his inclusion of the supernatural world of ghosts who are the true guardians of the house make it all work.  Is this a ghost story? an architectural history? an essay on ecology and forestry? a history lesson?  Yes, yes, yes, and more yes as Mason’s rich and elegant book contains universes.  The NYT reviewer refers to the book as a “hodgepodge narrative, brazenly disjointed in time, perspective, and form” and goes on to say “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.”  I can’t do better than that!

Mason’s book was chosen by the New York Times Book Review as one of 2023’s five best fiction works.  It is an honor that is well-deserved.  I loved this book.