Set against the background of a forest fire started by Henry David Thoreau, Woodsburner chronicles the lives of Oddmund Hus, a lovesick Norwegian immigrant farm hand, Eliot Calvert, a struggling bookseller and aspiring playwright, and Caleb Dowdy, a fire and brimstone preacher, whose stories intersect over the course of a single day: April 30, 1844. As the characters confront their lives of quiet desperation, they also offer a glimpse into the historical and cultural forces that shaped the young American nation in the years leading up to the Civil War.
In the spring of 1844, twenty-seven year-old Henry David Thoreau undertakes a boating excursion that will remake the landscape of American literature. Henry's future is uncertain. He has not gotten over the death of his brother two years earlier and cannot bring himself to organize his notes from their journey down the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. An aspiring poet-philosopher, Henry's only real successes have come in the form of mechanical innovations to his father's thriving pencil-making business, and he has resigned himself to a career as a civil engineer. On the day of his excursion, Henry and his companion, Edward Sherman Hoar, attempt to prepare a fish chowder in a tree stump on the banks of Fairhaven Bay and Henry accidentally sets fire to the nearby trees. By the day's end, scores of Concordians arrive to help extinguish the flames by setting backfires, cutting down trees in the fire's path, and beating back the flames with anything that comes to hand. More importantly, by the end of that fateful day, Henry realizes that he must somehow atone for the destruction he has unleashed upon his beloved woods, and he begins to contemplate living alone in a cabin at Walden Pond. Thus, it is in a cause as unlikely as an accidental forest fire that one of the iconic undertakings of American environmental literature finds its origin.
Woodsburner tells not only the story of a seminal event in the life of America's best known environmentalist philosopher but also the stories of three other characters who encounter the flames and find their desperate lives transformed. Oddmund Hus is the first to see the smoke. For many years he has silently loved Emma Woburn, an Irish immigrant who fled starvation in her homeland. Unable to confess his love, Odd chooses to live and work on her husband's farm just to be close to her. Odd harbors a frightening family secret that forces him to mistrust his own desires and keep his love for Emma to himself. For most of his life Odd has lived alone, having been orphaned many years earlier when the ship bringing his family from Norway inexplicably burst into flames in Boston Harbor. Odd is terrified of fire, but when he is forced to fight the Concord blaze, he finally acts upon the yearning he has repressed for years. Odd's love story is not a traditional romance but issues nonetheless from the basic human needs that overpower his crippling mistrust of his own desires; his is the story of an outsider, a story of immeasurable loss, hope, and perseverance-the story of the immigrant experience in early America.
Eliot Calvert, a successful bookseller and an aspiring playwright of limited talent, sees the smoke from Thoreau's fire as he stands in Concord's town square, where he plans to open a new bookshop to help him compete with George Ticknor's popular Old Corner Bookstore in Boston. Eliot embodies the familiar conflict between commerce and art, and he demonstrates how this tension is amplified by the irresistible allure of wealth in America. He proudly considers himself a member of America's emerging class of businessmen, but the expenses of his Beacon Hill home compel him to find creative ways of turning a profit, including the clandestine sale of the pornographic etchings hidden beneath the front counter of his Boston bookshop. Despite the crushing economic pressures he feels, Eliot still entertains hopes of one day staging one of his plays. He embraces the opportunity to fight Thoreau's fire as his last chance for finding the inspiration to complete The House of Many Windows, an overwritten melodrama in which he intends to burn an entire house on stage.
Meanwhile, the Reverend Caleb Ephraim Dowdy is consecrating the ground for a new church when he and his followers see the distant flames of Thoreau's fire and believe that the light is a sign from God. Divine approval, however, is not what Caleb seeks. He cannot fathom how God can tolerate the world's blatant imperfections and blasphemies-especially the nature-worshipping practices of the so-called Transcendentalists-unless, as he surmises, God simply does not exist. This doubt torments Caleb until he decides to prove God's existence by seeking his own damnation. Caleb turns to opium to alleviate his nightmares and founds a new church intended to mislead his followers. Caleb is driven by his unanswered evangelical fervor, but his great disappointment stems from the impossible expectations of his religious zeal, a zeal which demonstrates how religion in America can all-too-often blind its followers to the beauty of creation.
All of the characters in Woodsburner are leading lives of thwarted desires when their encounters with Thoreau's fire change them forever, but it is Thoreau himself whose change affects the greatest consequences. Though he finds a strange beauty in the conflagration, and for a moment even enjoys the spectacle, he is horrified by the destruction he has caused to his beloved surroundings. He desperately attempts to understand the causes and effects involved in the tragedy and looks for ways that he might atone for what he has done. The fire purges him of the indecisiveness that has kept him from pursuing his destiny as a writer and thinker, and by the end of the novel he is already on the path to becoming the philosopher that he is known as today. Perhaps it is his guilt or his need for atonement that compels him to live alone at Walden Pond the following year. Perhaps he recognizes nature's vulnerability and comes to see himself as a steward of the woods. Or perhaps he simply realizes that he must flee the angry residents of Concord, who follow him about for months after the fire, whispering the accusation: "Woodsburner, Woodsburner."