Book Review, We Took To The Woods by Louise Dickinson Rich
This has been one of my favorite books for years, perhaps the favorite. Every so often I reread it. Partly its attraction comes from its taking place in an area of western Maine where we volunteered for the Maine Appalachian Trail Club. Another reason I like it is that I years ago knew one of the characters in the book, an employee of the Rich’s.
Probably the main reason I like this book is the subject matter, the woods of Maine in the early 1940s. I found interesting the writer’s statement that long-log drives on waterways no longer existed, while pulp wood drives continued. Years ago a fellow teacher told me he had been on the last pulp wood log drive in Maine. Trucks are now the means for getting wood out of the Maine forests.
I noted in this latest reading no mention of moose. Perhaps in the 1940s they were nearly extinct. They’re not now with estimates of between 35,000 and 75,000, depending on the tallies of the partial counts from helicopters. I’ve encountered around 40, which leads me to believe there are lots more out there whose acquaintance I’ve missed.
Rich wrote, “We stayed, and we had a lovely time. We fished and sunbathed and swam, and in between times I found out why a man so obviously dry behind the ears should want to bury himself in the woods for the rest of his life. Ever since he was twelve years old, he had been spending his summers at Coburn’s, and his winters wishing it were summer so he could go back to Coburn’s. Middle Dam was the place in all the world where he was happiest, and he’d always told himself that some day he’d live there permanently. It took a long time and a lot of doing, but finally he’d managed. You see, Ralph, unlike me, has a single-track mind.”
Rich traveled on a group canoe trip through the area, and as the group walked the Carry Road between Lake Unbagog and Lower Richardson Lake, they spied Ralph chopping wood at his camp along the road. He invited them to stay awhile, they did, ate lunch, swam, and relaxed.
She immediately fell in love with him.
She typed on her manual typewriter, “Almost immediately upon my return to Massachusetts, while I was trying to think up a reasonably plausible excuse for happening back to the Rangeley region at the time of year when people just don’t go there, I began getting letters, telegrams, and finally telephone calls, almost daily from Ralph. Then he began to spend his time and money on the long and painful trek from Maine to Boston. It was, in short, a Courtship, and ended in the usual manner, with our deciding that this was a lot of expensive nonsense, so why didn’t we get married?”
She further wrote, “If, on that trip out of Parmachenee, one of us had stopped on the Carry Road two minutes to tie a shoe string, or if Ralph had split wood just a little bit faster, we would never have laid eyes upon him. He’d have been in the house, and we’d have walked right by. But the timing was perfect, and that’s how I happen to live in the woods.”
On being a writer, Rich wrote that she unexpectedly had sold a couple of articles to national magazines. Then she added, “This double success so went to our heads that we decided that from then on we would be writers.
“We weren’t, of course, because being a writer involves a lot more than just thinking it would be nice to be one. We sold our first attempt at fiction -- which was probably bad for us as it gave us false confidence -- and then we settled down to discover that writing is not all beer and skittles. But I think that now, at last, we are nearly writers. We don’t wait for inspiration any more, having found that inspiration is mostly the application of the seat of the pants to the seat of a chair. We stall around, trying to put off writing, which I understand is the occupational disease of writers. We earn most of our living by the written word. And we are utterly impatient with people who say, “I’ve often thought I could write myself.”
She concludes the first chapter with, “But some of the answers, the answers to the easy, matter-of-fact questions, like “Why don’t you write a book about it?”, (about living in the woods) I do know. The answer to that is, “Well, I guess maybe I will.
“And so I am writing a book about it.”
Rich’s descriptions were so accurate that one of a winter sunrise reminded me of the scene I see in Frenchman’s Bay each morning as I drive my bus down the road alongside it.
She told of she and her husband cutting wood with a two-handled handsaw, the like I haven’t seen since I was a kid helping my father by taking one end of his. About one of the two sawyers bearing down too hard on his end, she wrote, “It doesn’t make the saw cut any faster, and it makes it run an awful lot harder. It makes all the difference between pulling a four-pound weight back and forth or a forty pound. A very common admonition from one sawyer to another in this country is, ‘Pick up your feet, will you?’ That is probably meaningless to the uninitiate but a good sawyer resents it very much. It means that his partner is saying that he doesn’t mind riding him back and forth with every stroke of the saw, but he does consider it unnecessary to have to drag his feet along the ground, too. It’s the obscure local way of telling a man he’s bearing down on his end of the saw and it’s an implication that he doesn’t know his trade.”
I found prices around 1940, as listed by Rich, to be interesting. A pair of Montgomery Ward slacks cost $1.98. A coat from either Montgomery Ward or Sears, Roebuck cost $15.50. A neighbor had purchased several items from one of the two mail-order companies for $29.42. This was life in “the good old days,” although Rich didn’t call those days by that name when she wrote her book.
Of course, cars didn’t have automatic transmissions and lots of other goodies as do today’s. Computers? What the dickens will a computer look like? What will one be? I didn’t use my first one until about 1984, when the tiny Macs were brand new for Maine newspapers, and I had one in my office. I had to place a disk in it to write or read anything.
Speaking of the present of 1940 or thereabouts, Rich wrote that in the woods she didn’t see people a lot, “...but some of them have become my friends again. We’ve had to fall back on letter writing, you see.
When writing a letter, she wrote, “...I find it very difficult to discuss intimate matters with anyone. It is embarrassing for me. I start talking about the weather as soon as the conversation shows a tendency to get personal. On paper though there’s nothing I wouldn’t hash over....”
Letter, e-mail, article....then or now, writing is writing. Some of us are comfortable with it. She was physically on the Carry Road alongside the Rapid River. I can’t be there, but I can be here. I can write rather than be with the group. Rich expressed what writer’s feel worldwide.
Descriptions were a strong point in her writing. In the woods, she wrote, “...we don’t have plays and music and contact with sophisticated minds, and a round of social engagements. All we have are sun and wind and rain, and space in which to move and breathe. All we have are the forests, and the calm expanses of the lakes, and time to call our own...”
That, I think, sums it up for me. It’s where We Took To The Woods transports me. I have been in those places, not that exact spot where she with her family spent a number of years, but the same places, the woods, the mountaintops, the lakes, alongside rushing streams.
Those places give me a freedom, a deep peace, a feeling of my little place among them, which is what Rich described for me.
When I’m here in the study and not out there in those places, We Took To the Woods takes me back to those scenes.
Her other early books that I liked were My Neck of the Woods and
Happy the Land. I didn’t like a later one, The Peninsula as well, because she wrote that after she had left the woods and moved to the Gouldsboro area on the coast. Her woods is my cup of tea. The rest of her books, some children’s stores, I haven’t read. I found these online at reasonable prices, such as $7 for We Took To The Woods and $20 for an old copy like mine.
My copy had disappeared, probably lent to someone who forgot to return it. Two of my daughters came up with my current copy as a Christmas present.
A present, those places, that peace of the Maine woods, that will, I hope, never leave me.
Milt Gross can be reached for corrections, harassment, or other purposes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Milton M. Gross Copyright 2013