Photo of an apple orchard with apples on the trees and ground

By Jacqui Banaszynski

The 2023 novel “North Woods” by Daniel Mason is about apples, or about a patch of land where a disaffected traveler grew apples, or about the house he built that then crumbled, or about all of that — and also none of that. Apples are a thin throughline and occasional metaphor, but mostly  provide a tart-and-sweet juiciness to a book that’s about wonder, war, family, history, terror, faith, marriage, parenthood, sex, nature, betrayal, seasons, America, grief, fashion, hunger, race, class, survival, philosophy and more. Yes, more, including a panther. Like this list, the book conforms to no obvious or traditional order; chapters range from a long collection of one-sided letters between closeted gay lovers to dialog-driven scenes to poems. It is somewhat chronological, but only as it dips back into the history of the singular place it is set in — a vague and remote patch of land in what would become Maine (or Massachusetts?) where a widower escaped the griefs of society to nurture his twin daughters and his apple orchard.

Cover of the novel "North Woods" by Daniel MasonThe book had been urged on me by many reader friends. I was intrigued that even as they raved, each said it was “different” or “challenging” or mentioned that it took them awhile to pick up its rhythms, but then they were hooked. They were right, although my summary would be that Mason’s book is what I think of as a slow read — a book you have to engage with, chapter by chapter, page by page, graf by graf, sentence by sentence. As such, it’s gutsy. It not only defies the solid underpinnings of known structures, but it defies this era of short attentions.

It also rewards those who yearn for that time when a book — a well-told story — became a whole world. For writers — whether of fiction, nonfiction or poetry — it offers permission to dare break some rules. For readers, it invites — even requires — full attention and, I have found, frequent re-reading of passages — at first, for me, to pick up the threads of plot and changing rhythms of language, but, soon enough, to absorb the layers of flavor in each sentence. If the book were an apple, it would be more Honeycrisp than Red Delicious.

Once I found that reading zone, I also found myself listening (because readers do ”hear” writing with an inner ear) for echoes to today’s issues in a book that is, on surface, as far removed from today as it could be. Perhaps the strongest echo is man’s imprint on nature — or, at times, the reverse: nature’s imprint on man. In either direction, that imprint can be life-giving — or an assault.

A strong echo came with the latest news about global warming. This in a story from the Los Angeles Times by environmental reporter Hayley Smith:

Humanity is ignoring major planetary vital signs as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels soar to all-time highs and Earth records its 12th consecutive month of record-breaking heat, international climate officials warned this week.

At 60.63 degrees, the global mean temperature in May was a record 2.73 degrees hotter than the preindustrial average against which warming is measured — marking an astonishing yearlong streak of heat that shows little sign of slowing down, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service.

“North Woods” is not an environmental treatise per se. Yet, perhaps inevitably, it is. Wilderness turned to orchards. Orchards destroyed by disregard. Bodies that are fed by nature then return in death to feed nature. And that panther.

The LA Times story sent me hunting back through my dog-eared pages of “North Woods” to find a sentence that held me when I read it. It may even be the heart of the entire book — what we clumsily call a “nut graf” in traditional journalism. It comes in a long chapter of musings written by a father — the original apple orchardist — to his daughters as he prepares to head for war. He’s trying to leave them a lifetime of perspective and value, passion and purpose, in case he doesn’t return. One of his stories calls on the apple’s mythical status in ancient Greece and the annual tradition of sharing wassail with the tree roots to assure a good crop the following year.

The widowed orchardist admits to his daughters that he doesn’t really believe the myth; he has seen Nature (which he capitalizes as a proper name), do just fine without the impositions of man. But then he writes this:

… I have come to the opinion, generally, that he who does good to the land shall be protected, while he who trespasses upon her will be met with most violent return.

I have read little poetry and few prayers that use words to worship more beautifully.

Further Reading