How Thoreau set the Concord woods on fire.

Woodsburner By John Pipkin Doubleday 366 pp., $28.95

Henry David Thoreau ... fire starter? The idea is unthinkable – almost like finding photos of Smokey Bear playing with matches. And yet, one spring day in 1844, on a fishing trip with a friend, the 26-year-old lit a campfire that blazed out of control.

By the end of the day, 300 acres of the Concord woods were destroyed. Had the wind been blowing from a different direction, Walden woods and the city of Concord could have been decimated as well.

John Pipkin has had the great good sense to turn this somehow little-known event into a novel, Woodsburner, that manages to be both philosophical and a rollicking good read. As the fire burns, he joins together one conflicted transcendentalist, a farmer’s wife, her farmhand, an opium-addicted preacher who’s come to build a church, two Slavic “witches,” and a bookstore owner who dreams of being a playwright but who makes his profits off somewhat more earthy fare.

By the end of that April day, Thoreau, who had resolved to abandon his writing career to build a better pencil, will instead turn back toward a life tied to nature that would lead to his writing his most famous work, “Walden.” The fire will change other lives as well.

“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.)

For readers who are looking for a fun read, not philosophy tracts that “seek the infinite in every bud and leaf, find revelations in birdsong and thunder,” fear not: Most of the characters have no patience with transcendentalists.

“I’ve met plenty of deep-thinking men. There’s no shortage of them hereabouts,” remarks the solidly built Emma Woburn, the object of Oddmund’s silent love. Her view is rather more benign than her fellow characters. “Poets,” Eliot thinks, “are intent on ruining everything.”

Even Thoreau has convinced himself (sort of) that a life of making pencils is more worthwhile than a life writing with them. “The world does not want for another self-assured scribbler, possessed of a surfeit of words and little of necessity to say,” he writes in his journal. “To have a tangible effect, to feel the weight of one’s accomplishment in the palm of one’s own hand – progress with heft! – this is the divine union of invention and reward. I have decided! I will make pencils, still.”

For a lover of nature like Thoreau, it’s hard to imagine anything worse than starting a wildfire (aside from accidentally clubbing a baby seal or sitting on the last golden toad in existence). Pipkin doesn’t underplay Thoreau’s horror at what he’s done (or overplay the inherent irony of the author of “Walden” burning down the woods). Instead, he concentrates on the ability of a natural disaster to act as a catalyst in people’s minds and lives. The result is, well, transcendent.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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