Into The Forest: Book Review

Last night I finished the book Into the Forest, written by Jean Hegland. She just so happens to dwell in the same patch of redwoods that I do, so I of course found the book especially relevant to my place and situation. I started the book months ago, read the first 15 pages and set it down for a while, only to pick it up only two days ago and read the rest within that time (it is a page turner).

The story is about two young girls coming of age in a time of great transition and turning. It takes place for the most part in their rural home far up in the woods and in the forest beyond where they slowly but surely lose their connection with the outside world. Economic upheaval, environmental collapse, and the dwindling of easy energy resources has devastated the United States and made it a hollow shell of what it once was. The government is broke and collapses, and the electricity or phone calls that once could reach the family become less and less until one day there is no more whatsoever.

Just as all of this is happening, the girls lose their Mother to cancer, and their Father slips into a sadness that they have never before witnessed. The three of them carry on, making weekly trips to the nearest town while the gas remains purchasable at the station. They expect the electricity to come back at some point; for life to return to normal once more so that one of the girls can get into Harvard and the other into a prestigious ballet company in San Francisco. One week as the three are on their way back from town, their father alerts them that they won’t be going back for some time, as there hasn’t been gas available to fill their truck on the last two visits.

Their next trip, months later, is shocking. Their nearest neighbor’s house has been abandoned and raided; the roads have started to deteriorate and have been partially overtaken with tall weeds; their vehicle is the only one on the road driving around, while countless others it seems are parked for good. Old friends in town have been replaced with gun wielding strangers, and the Father’s former place of work at the local school has been boarded up and shut down like countless other buildings. They attempt to gather some news and figure out what exactly is going on, but have only enough gas in their tank to get some supplies (all that is left at a nearly cleaned out abandoned-looking department store) and head back to their house in the hills on the edge of the forest.

In the months following, the three of them drag on with the heaviness of the situation and the burden of the loss of their mother and wife, and do their best to prepare for the coming winter with food rationing and canning missions to preserve the bounty of their garden and orchard. Shortly after, another tragedy befalls the girls and the two of them are left alone to fully take care of themselves.

Depression, hardship and some harrowing encounters with people who visit their land follow as they do their best to remain fed, healthy, and sane. In the end, they grow closer and closer to the forest that surrounds them – the forest that they were once taught to fear, and not go too near. All that they relied on as a comfort, support and necessity of modern humanity eventually fails them, becomes a burden and must be left aside lest it pull them under to sure detriment and death. The wildness and intelligence of the forest speaks to them and through them, until they know with a felt certainty that only there can they be held. Only there can they be home.

I greatly enjoyed this book, and especially so because it took me by surprise in the ways that it made me feel. The characters are brilliantly portrayed and easy to relate to as their journey became mine, as the reader. I was there with them as they watched their lives and society crumble all around them, for I too expect that this may be the future for our country. I was there with them as they dealt with the losses of those leaders who could show them a way out of the dark times and offer them protection and wisdom. I felt acutely their fear of not having enough food to eat, or water to drink, or gas to run the car to drive and escape from the wreckage that had become their lives.

I felt the frenzied craze as I have before of the survivalist movement. It coursed through me, leaving me wanting at once to figure things out; to install solar panels, buy a gun, establish food caches, amass resources and secure myself and family a stronghold in the boonies where the descending insanity of a world gone mad would not reach us. The author did not let me stop there though. She took me through to a simple truth and realization – that all these objects amassed and things to be acquired do not necessarily secure us with the certainty of life; that it is only us in our connection with each other and all that is living that can do so.

For the two girls in Into The Forest it all came down to the love that they shared, and how far they were willing to stay in that love with each other. It also came down to their willingness to engage with a being much larger than themselves – a whole breathing forest full of so much life, and with that so much potential help and support. There in the living forest, beyond the confines of the crumbling walls of their “fugue state” structures at the end of the road, they eventually found everything that they needed to not only live, but to be alive with something so much greater than they had ever known.

Read the book!

– Joseph Stodgel, 1/5/14

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