A tale of two nonfiction books: We Took to the Woods, and She Took to the Woods.
18 March 2016
When my sister read Louise Dickinson Rich's classic We Took to the Woods, she really, really liked it. So I kept thinking, I have to read that book.*
And so I did. And it was okay. Rich is a lively writer, no doubt about it. It's a memoir about how she lived with her husband (and eventually her son, and then her daughter) in a completely isolated spot in Maine. Each chapter takes as its heading one of the many questions she'd been asked over the years: "But how do you make a living?" "Don't you ever get bored?" You get the idea. So here's how she starts out:
"During most of my adolescence--specifically, between the time when I gave up wanting to be a brakeman on a freight train and the time when I definitely decided to become an English teacher--I said, when asked what I was going to do with my life, that I was going to live alone in a cabin in the Maine woods and write. It seemed to me that this was a romantic notion, and I was insufferably smug over my own originality. Of course, I found out later that everybody is at one time or another going to do something of the sort. It's part of being young. The only difference in my case is that, grown to womanhood, I seem to be living in a cabin in the Maine woods, and I seem to be writing." p. 13.
See? Lively. And here's how she describes where she and her husband, Ralph, live:
"Middle Dam is quite a community. There is the dam itself, a part of the system for water control on the Androscoggin, with the dam-keeper and his family. Renny and Alice Miller and their three children, in year-round residence. Then in summer the hotel is open. We only call it a hotel; it's really a fishing camp. In winter it is closed, but there is a caretaker, Larry Parsons, who stays in with his wife, Al, and a hired man or two. So the permanent population of Middle Dam hovers at around nine, and that is comparative congestion. We get our mail and supplies through Middle, and it is the point of departure for The Outside, so its importance is all out of proportion to its population." (p. 16.)
I read the whole thing, but I was feeling a bit uncomfortable because I was thinking I didn't enjoy it as much as my sister did. For one thing, anyone who enjoys sidewalks and walking a few blocks down the road to the coffee shop to get a treat (and I do enjoy both those things, very much) can't really get too excited about a book where part of the chief attraction is the loneliness and wildness of the landscape. For another, I read it in January, when we were all ill with The Never-Ending Cold**, and I just don't think I could give it the attention that I should have.
But then I heard from my sister that there was also a biography about Rich available, called She Took to the Woods, and I thought, okay, let's do it. And THAT I loved. Here's how that book's author describes Rich's fateful meeting with her husband-to-be, for whom she would literally leave civilization:
"Meanwhile, on the Carry Road, Louise was finding it hard to put one foot in front of the other. With every step, she became increasingly convinced that she had just met her destiny [Ralph Rich] and was walking away from it. She felt bereft, almost frantic. Her intuition said, 'Drop the canoe and run back.' Her intellect said, 'Don't be impulsive; you know it gets you in trouble.' What to do? What to do! Just ahead, Alice's enthusiastic impressions about the encounter, the locale, and the host began to peter out. She cocked her head at Louise: 'Gosh, you're awfully quiet all of a sudden.'" (p. 29.)
What I really loved about reading these two books was how they were both good examples of their nonfiction genres (memoir/humor and biography) and how they gave completely different pictures of the same story. I don't think Rich made things up in her memoir; I think she presented them in a very specific way. For instance: at their isolated home in Maine, the Riches had a hired man/jack of all trades named Gareth. Now, the way Louise talked about him, I assumed he was some old bachelor dude that just lived with them. And then you read the biography and find out that Gareth had a family of his own, who lived elsewhere, including a grown daughter who often helped Louise look after her children.
So between the two books I had a great reading experience, not only enjoying the books themselves, but enjoying the truth that for every nonfiction story, there are at least as many truths as there are people telling the story. Awesome.
*I almost always read the books my sister talks about. Even when we disagree in our tastes it makes for great discussions. She is one of the very few people in my life with whom I always want to talk more, not less.
**Even capping it doesn't do it justice. Holy cow, was January a miserable month this year. Ye gods, THE NEVER-ENDING HORRIFYING COLD. People who don't think reading is a physical activity should try reading (and enjoying reading) while sick. It's not easy. But I try anyway.