Thursday, June 8, 2017

A Fugitive in Walden Woods

The latest installment in the author's American Novels Series, A Fugitive in Walden Woods looks at Henry David Thoreau's time at Walden Pond from a novel lens.  Norman Lock introduces the reader to a character named Samuel Long, an escaped slave from a plantation in Virginia, who has been given refuge in a shack in the woods nearby to Thoreau's cabin.  It is from Long's point of view that we experience New England as it was in the mid-nineteenth century.

Arriving in Concord, MA through the network of the Underground Railroad, Samuel is welcomed into the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his wife, and later introduced to his contemporaries.  These are essentially a who's who of the Transcendentalism Club - Emerson, Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and many others.  Samuel spends some time with each of them, and comments on his impressions of them as individuals and abolitionists.  He also encounters tradespeople, such as the ice harvesters who undertake the dangerous task of collecting the frozen layer of Walden Pond for its eventual use as ice cubes.  All the while, he and Thoreau talk about themes that would later make their way into his book Walden - neighbors, house construction, visitors, wildlife, the pond itself.  As Thoreau is philosophizing, he uses Samuel as a kind of sounding board, and gradually Samuel gains the confidence to talk to this man, even challenging his points when the fugitive slave experience differs from that of his companion.  Thoreau's meandering philosophy is in contrast to his lived experience of bondage and unimaginable suffering.  This is a constant and recurring theme, and something that Samuel struggles with when interacting with just about every white person he meets.  He recognizes and acknowledges their socioeconomic privilege and freedom of movement in comparison to his fragile status and complete and utter dependency. 

As Samuel gets acquainted with Thoreau, so does the reader.  He describes him as a dreamer, someone who bristles against social convention and expectation.  He desires to understand the meaning of life, and partakes in experiments to understand what "living" means.  Some of the events and dialogue are factually based, and others are fiction invented by the author but ringing as true.  This is also the case with the other Transcendentalists.  The audience learns of these men and women through Samuel's eyes, with his preconceptions and assumptions as well as his great capacity for learning and understanding.  One thing that this book does brilliantly is portray these individuals as interesting and flawed individuals, from the perspective of one who has never encountered men like them before.

When Samuel accompanies Nathaniel Hawthorne to Boston via train, he meets with William Lloyd Garrison.  A prominent abolitionist, he is the publisher of an anti-slavery magazine "The Liberator".  At his office, Samuel tells his story of escaping from the plantation where he had toiled, how he severed his own hand to be able to flee his manacle, the circumstances under which he joined the Underground Railroad, and was eventually delivered to the Emerson home.  His story is published, and leads to some interesting consequences. 

Prior to this meeting, Samuel struggled with whether or not to participate in the abolition movement, and what role he might play.  Would he be paraded around as an oddity - the negro who is an accomplished orator?  He would rather live a quiet life, a decision that puts him in conflict with another escaped slave who was determined to return to the South and take up violent action against the institution of slavery.  He eventually decides to participate in some consciousness-raising meetings and talk about his experiences.  It's important to note that he decides never to show the audiences his welt-covered back, believing that people are willing to engage with slavery as an intellectual concept, but not as a concrete reality.

Norman Lock's A Fugitive in Walden Woods is a beautifully written, with heartbreaking tenderness and brutal savagery.  You are well and truly transported to the Walden Pond with Thoreau, to Concord with Emerson, and Boston with Hawthorne.  The author speaks to the differences between philosophy and lived experience, the horrors of slavery, and their long-lasting effects on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.  Not a re-telling of Walden, but more of an engagement with it, this period in history is given a new perspective that speaks as clearly to that time as it does to ours.

Librorum annis,