“Woodsburner” is Pipkin’s first novel, but, with its complex structure and top-notch prose, there’s not a page that reads like the work of a novice. His descriptions of fire have both life and a sense of menace, as when Thoreau thinks for a second that he and his friend’s frantic efforts have stamped it out. Then he turns around. “Overhead, he sees a throng of clever flames crouching in the branches of a sleeping birch.”
Pipkin weaves his characters together in unexpected ways, which it would be a shame to say more about. Fire is a recurring motif in everyone’s lives – whether depicted in a stained-glass window or in a more ominous fashion. The farmhand Oddmund, for example, is orphaned by an act of spectacular stupidity, when his father – symbolically erasing his family’s infamous past – sets fire to a scroll on board the ship that carried them to America. The resulting explosion kills everyone except the 10-year-old Norwegian boy. From shore, scavengers observe the destruction of the Sovereign of the Seas:
“They knew that water, even an ocean of it, was no deterrent when a fire was determined to do its business.”
That fact is uppermost in Thoreau’s mind, but while he runs for help, he also thinks about the events in his life that have led to the day – such as his brother’s death and the shuttering of the school they ran together. The other characters are in a similarly reflective mood, and Pipkin alternates chapters between their points of view. Eliot Calvert, purveyor of books, pencils, and pornography, reflects on how far business and family life have intruded on his desire to be a real writer. (If Thoreau is a proto-environmentalist, Calvert is a proto-Bruckheimer: His play climaxes with the burning – on stage – of an entire house.
Causes John Pipkin Supports
Trust for Public Land
Writers' League of Texas