In this novel based on a true story, Henry David Thoreau accidentally sets fire to three hundred acres of woods near Concord, Massachusetts, a year before he will build his cabin on Walden Pond. The fire illuminates the desires and ambitions of three local citizens who join forces with Thoreau to fight the blaze: Odd, a lovesick farmhand; Eliot, an ambitious bookseller; and Caleb, an ardent preacher obsessed with damnation.
After leaving New York and settling in Concord to help his father run the pencil factory, Thoreau plans a fish bake in the woods with his friend, Edward Sherman Hoar. An accomplished woodsman, Henry lights the fateful match; the fire is caught by the wind, which carries it into the trees. As it creeps toward town, various observers remark on its progress. Oddmund Has, a Norwegian immigrant in unrequited love with his master’s voluptuous wife, Emma, fights his passionate urges as he watches the fire take hold in the distance. Eliot, a newly arrived bookseller from Boston, wishes to escape the bondage of his wife’s father’s money and desires to found a new bookstore in Concord. Caleb observes the fire from the spot where he plans to build his new anti-Transcendentalist church. At the culmination of the narrative, all characters converge at the scene of the fire, and all are forever changed by the event.
I enjoyed the pace and style of the narrative and the interactions between the characters, the fire, and the world of Thoreau’s Concord. This novel entices with nonstop action, historical detail, and accuracy of setting. Having recently been to Concord and Walden Pond, I think Pipkin’s research into the history of Thoreau’s Concord is accurate and thought provoking. The reader can almost smell the fire burning through the pages of this tale.