"North Woods" | Reviewed by William Winkler
Daniel Mason joins writers such as Robin Cook (“Coma”), Abraham Verghese (“Cutting for Stone)”, and Khaled Hosseini (“The Kite Runner”) in the ranks of practicing physicians who have written commercially successful novels. Mason is a psychiatrist at Stanford University Hospital who also teaches literature at the university. His 2021 novel, “A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth.” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Mason’s most recent novel, “North Woods,” spans centuries from the late 17th to the present day 21st. Its central character is a house in the forests of northwest Massachusetts. First built as a simple stone cabin by a young couple escaping a Puritan colony, the house grows over the years. Its inhabitants include; a British officer, a hero of the French and Indian wars, who turns his back on rapid advancement in the military ranks to create an orchard producing apples of unparalleled quality, his two spinster daughters, a landscape artist who manages to keep his sexual orientation hidden until well after his death, the mother of a young schizophrenic who narrowly escapes the early 20th century practice of lobotomy, and a handful of others.
A story arc parallel to that of the house is the history of the north woods, its evolution over the years, and the diseases that plagued it, the chestnut blight, Dutch Elm disease, and the advance of the Emerald Ash borer. The forest, and its interaction with its inhabitants, provide a secondary setting to the advance of the narrative. The changing nature of the forest provides a foil for the changing nature of the times and its effects on those who choose to inhabit it.
Mason holds an undergraduate degree in biology, enabling him to add narrative richness to the story by painting vivid images of the flora and fauna of sylvan Massachusetts. His description of the mating behavior of the Elm Bark Beetle, an insect the size of a grain of rice, borders on the erotic.
As the narrative advances the reader is reminded of the lives of previous inhabitants by events both archaeological and some bordering on the supernatural.
The interface between the natural world and its human inhabitants in this novel bears a resemblance to that described in Richard Powers’s recent novel “The Overstory.” Readers who enjoyed that work will be drawn into “North Woods.” But those with no familiarity with the Powers novel will still be captivated by this story of the yellow house in the woods.