By the time ghosts start gathering in Daniel Mason’s “North Woods,” it’s too late to flee. You’re already rooted to this haunting, haunted novel about a homestead in western Massachusetts. Don’t be afraid: Go in the house.

I’ve been raving about Mason’s work since his gorgeous debut, “The Piano Tuner,” was published over 20 years ago while he was in medical school. He’s since won fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, along with a Pushcart Prize, an O. Henry Prize and a National Magazine Award. In 2021, his first collection of short stories, “A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth,” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction.

And yet Mason somehow still feels always about to break out. The literary gods are inscrutable – the book club overlords even more so – but I’m praying you’ll consider getting lost in “North Woods” this fall. Elegantly designed with photos and illustrations, this is a time-spanning, genre-blurring work of storytelling magic.

The novel begins some 400 years ago with two naughty Pilgrims fleeing their settlement and hiding from soldiers sent out to drag them home. “They were Nature’s wards now,” Mason writes. “Barefoot they ran through the forest . . . to the north woods.” They dare to marry themselves in the hollow of an old oak and swim naked in the brook. The young man, an “ungodly” rake who “consorted with heathens,” hauls a flat stone out of the water and sets it down in a clearing to mark the corner of their new home. From that act of illegal passion and wild optimism arises a vast tale that eventually contains lives of generations to come.

Indeed, to read “North Woods” is to suffer the sweet sorrow of falling in love with fresh residents only to see them swept away by the passing seasons.



The silent spaces between these stories articulate what the residents can’t. Their errant lives begin locking together in a winding chain of unlikely history. And when the moonlight strikes just right, you may even see some past homeowner flit across the corner of a page once again.

But Mason isn’t just passively watching the evolution of this site in the forest. Each chapter germinates its own form while sending out tendrils that entwine beneath the surface of the novel. The Edenic tale of the two Pilgrims, for instance, gives way to a captivity narrative about a woman kidnapped by Indians. It’s an anonymous confession smoldering with the stark language and mannered attitudes of the colonial era, and it climaxes with an act of violence that screams across the centuries.

The precision of Mason’s perspective involves a kind of omniscience that feels equally microscopic and moral. In an intercalary chapter, he follows the circuitous path of an apple that lands in the corpse of a murdered man. “One of the apple seeds,” he writes, “sheltered in the shattered rib cage, breaks its coat, drops a root into the soil, and lifts a pair of pale-green cotyledons. A shoot rises, thickens, seeks the bars of light above it, and gently parts the fifth and sixth ribs that once guarded the dead man’s meager heart.”

As it turns out, apples play such a central role in the story that one doesn’t open this book so much as bite into it with a sweet crunch. One of the foundational stories at the center of “North Woods” begins with the arrival of a soldier from the French and Indian campaigns. Osgood’s siblings think he’s crazy to move out to western Massachusetts with his young daughters – there is something vaguely mad about his enthusiasm – but he remains certain: “God had willed me to raise an orchard.” He tromps around for miles looking for just the right tree, tasting everything he can find. “How profligate America was with her apples!” he declares. “Mine would be wild!”

Osgood preserves the old stone cabin on his site and attaches it to his new saltbox house, painted “lemon yellow, with white shutters on the windows and a tall black door.” He’s convinced that “history haunts him who does not honour it,” but as this novel unfolds, we’ll see that history haunts anyone, regardless of whether they honor it or not.

The Earth turns, the apple crops swell and falter, the yellow house gives shelter to new residents, and “North Woods” keeps forming and reforming this tableau of a place that abides. As the decades pass, some mysteries are solved, while some tragedies grow more mysterious. The only constants are the land and Mason’s genius. (And the rain. It rains so much in these pages you should keep this book in a Ziploc bag of rice.)

As the chapters proceed, a story of sibling devotion slips into gothic trauma worthy of Flannery O’Connor. A series of letters from a landscape painter suggests forbidden love with such aching subtlety that it evokes Henry James. A breezy column from a true-crime magazine nails the periodical’s tone. And a lobotomist’s case notes remind us that Mason is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University.

Given its composite structure and its devotion to trees, “North Woods” will remind some readers of the Richard Powers epic “The Overstory” that won a Pulitzer Prize. But Mason has a lighter, more mischievous touch even as he considers similar issues about the fate of our forests and ourselves. Not that there is anything derivative about what the author does here, but as he floats through thrillers, a bit of comic noir, erotic paranormal fiction and other genres, it’s hard to imagine there is anything he can’t do.

Late in the novel, a wildflower scientist who is perfectly cognizant of the disastrous effects of climate change wanders around the old yellow farmhouse. “The only way to understand the world as something other than a tale of loss,” she thinks, “is to see it as a tale of change.” “North Woods” projects that revelatory vision so powerfully that you can’t help but feel the book evolve in your hands.

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