‘North Woods’ takes readers to the wilderness
Penguin Random House

‘North Woods’ takes readers to the wilderness

For author Daniel Mason, there is no more perfect fictional character than a mountain lion.

Full of the same intrinsic desires of Captain Ahab or Heathcliff — hunger, lust, curiosity, defensiveness, a drive to kill — the inherited animal instincts of the puma concolor are as exciting to Mason as the interiority of any man. Untamed nature as a psychologically explored character is the central concept behind his 2023 novel, “North Woods,” from Penguin Random House.

Mason was the guest author at The White Hart Inn’s Speaker Series in collaboration with Oblong Books on Thursday, Feb. 1, as he discussed the blend of nature writing and historical fiction that makes up “North Woods” with New York Times art journalist Laura van Straaten to a sold-out crowd. Named one of the best books of the year by the Times, as well as The Washington Post, Time Magazine and The Boston Globe among many other publications, Mason, the 2020 recipient of the Joyce Carol Oates Literary Prize, has dazzled readers with his latest: a chronological account of a plot of land located in western Massachusetts.

Beginning with a pair of star-crossed Puritans gleefully abandoning their settlement in what Mason described as “an anti-Scarlet Letter” reversal of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Massachusetts Bay Colony romance, the story continues not as a generational saga but as a detailed time-lapse of the land the lovers build their home upon. Spanning multiple centuries, the story of “North Woods” was inspired by “the incredible diversity of animal life and the sheer number of species” in New England and is told through a combination of prose, letters, songs, journal entries and fragments of historical illustrations.

It should come as no surprise that the intimate diaries of writers like American naturalist and transcendental philosopher Henry David Thoreau served as a muse and a way for Mason to mentally walk through the woods of yesterday. “Something that I love reading is the un-bowdlerized writer’s notebooks,” Mason said. “Because usually what happens is a famous writer dies and somebody, usually a spouse or a child, will then publish an edited version of the notebooks, which is all the good stuff — all the great diary mentions of the famous people the writer encounters, which is interesting, but what’s much more interesting is seeing all the messy stuff. The day-to-day entries include a lot of the natural world and interactions with it: agriculture, farms and horses. Thoreau has these incredible images of traveling all over Massachusetts, walking through the town of North Adams, coming through the woods, walking out in front of a factory, and seeing the women working in the factory looking out the window at him. Then he goes through Williams College, up Mount Greylock, and walks all over this similar territory to [‘North Woods’].”

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