Reposting to include Marion’s new review.
Daniel Mason’s North Woods (2023) is a wonderfully and precisely crafted collection of related short stories that greatly impresses with its varied styles, vividly detailed descriptions, sharp sentence constructions, connecting echoes, and a few unexpected twists and turns. I would have preferred a bit more emotional depth at times, though several of the stories, particularly toward the end, offer up some more than a few moving scenes. Between those moments and Mason’s consummate craftsmanship, North Woods is an easy book to enthusiastically recommend.
The center of the narrative is a plot of land in Massachusetts, introduced to the reader through the eyes of a young couple in love fleeing the constraints of Puritan society. From there, the stories move us successively forward in time but not space as various characters inhabit the same spot, including but not limited to: a young woman kidnapped by Native Americans, a former soldier bent on starting an apple orchard, his two spinster daughters who take over the business, a landscape artist, a true crime reporter, an amateur historian, an ecologist, a pair of lusty beetles (yes, you read that right), and a mountain lion. Mason shifts not only between decades/centuries and characters but also between genres/styles, employing for instance an epistolary structure in one story, a more pulp style for another, a classic ghost story for another. He even tosses in a few ballads. Tone also is varied, with some stories incredibly tense, some incredibly chilling, and others offering up laugh out loud moments. The skillful ease with which Mason slips in and out of various voices is one the great pleasures of the book.
Another is the richly vivid descriptions of the natural world, as the stories depict various seasons via changing hues, plants, animal life, temperatures, etc. but also larger changes over greater stretches of time as the land is constantly reformed either naturally or through the work of the people living on it. Here, for instance, is a description of the land in August:
Snakes settles into the warm coves between the stones. A wolf pack gathers briefly in the lee of the cabin; the pups chase white butterflies at the edges of the pond. In the garden, the squash grows plump on thundershower, the trailing beams swarm up the cornstalks, the corn ripens in its husk. Butterflies alight upon the swaying sprays of boneset, and milkweed pods split open and begin to spill their tuft.
And in another story, the land is buried in winter:
The banks are lined with fantastic ice — columns like organ pipes, bulbs straight from the glassblowers, thin sheets through which one can watch the rising bubbles. Indeed, I have become a connoisseur of ice these days: the sleet like hissing sand, the white that coats the roads like baker’s dustings, the crystalline mesh, thin as spun sugar, that shatters with the passing of my hand . . . ragged rime upon the leaves and every single bobbing stalk of winter weed.
This sharply grounding painting of reality plays nicely with the various supernatural elements that run throughout the collection, though I won’t detail them so as to avoid spoilers. Suffice to say such moments don’t feel at all out of place in this vividly realized world and in fact accrue over the series of stories so that the ending story feels all but inevitable. Meanwhile, though each story stands on its own, Mason threads a number of echoes throughout — images, themes, recurring objects, characters connected by blood or in some other fashion — that serve to make the collection feel if not entirely novelistic certainly more unified.
If I had one quibble, as noted it would be that while I enjoyed (and often admired) every story here, they didn’t always land with an emotional impact, though the ending does, so one somewhat forgets the absence in earlier stories. I should also note that the book as whole falls more into the “quiet” mode, with a lot of description and a focus more on character than “action.” I’m a fan of such works, so I had no issue with pace nor any desire for “more stuff to happen,” but your mileage may vary.
The novel in short story form is one of my favorite genres, and North Woods is an excellent example of that storytelling mode. I loved the structure, the polyglot voicing, the way the shifts in tone and voice and style are mirrored by the setting’s own ecological shifts, the beautifully detailed nature writing side by side with the more fantastical moments, and the carefully dropped references that stitch one story to another. Highly recommended.
I don’t usually write a review solely to enthusiastically “ditto!” another reviewer, but Daniel Mason’s North Woods inspires me to do just that. I have very little to add about this beautiful and whimsical novel-as-a-series-of-stories-and-songs. Mason masters tone here, or tones, I guess I should say, from archaic first-person accounts, to ballads, to pulpy “true crime” blogs, even to the gothic. At least one of the sections, set during the Long Gilded Age, involving a tycoon, his wife and a “medium,” is laugh-out-loud funny.
Like Bill, I could have used more emotional resonance in the earlier sections, although later stories get more poignant and moving. I made do, however, with the exquisite descriptions of the North Woods itself. “Terroir” is a French term used to describe the effect of land and environment on winegrapes, and it has been extended in casual use to mean a strong sense of place. North Woods is a novel of terroir. Recommended.