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Daniel Mason's 'North Woods' explores time, place, connection, ghosts

The cover of "North Woods" by Daniel Mason. (Courtesy)
The cover of "North Woods" by Daniel Mason. (Courtesy)

Psychiatrist and author Daniel Mason is a Pulitzer-prize finalist for his 2020 “A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth.” Now, he’s beguiling readers with his acclaimed new novelNorth Woods.”

The book is a sweeping exploration of time and connection, following the people who live in or find themselves connected to a single house in Western Massachusetts over 400 or so years. But time, as Mason shows, isn’t always linear, and the past sometimes intersects with the future in ways unimaginable in the present. The book also explores mental illness, climate, botany and more.

Here & Now’s Robin Young spoke to Daniel Mason at a recent WBUR City Space event.

Author Daniel Mason. (Courtesy of Sara Houghteling)

Book excerpt: ‘North Woods’

By Daniel Mason

Over the course of the forty-one years since the death of their father, Alice and Mary Osgood, joint proprietors of the locally known apple of that name, had lived a life which seemed, at least to others, unchanging. In some ways this was an accurate assessment. As twins and spinsters, they had but a single birthday to celebrate; by virtue of their isolation, they received few invitations. They still slept on the same straw-stuffed mattress they had slept on as children, woke each morning with the crowing of the rooster, winced at their cricks (neck, Mary; back, Alice), swung out of bed into the skirt and blouse and jacket laid out on a bedside chair, and went downstairs. They walked softly, a habit from their childhood, though there had been no one else, for years, to wake.

There were of course, occasional exceptions—the rare night one might spend alone if the other were waylaid by a snowstorm, or the weeks of illness in which one, and then the other, stayed in bed. But such variance was rare. If life, as the man said, was a song, theirs was more refrain than verse. And yet to have claimed that a warm spring morning walking over earth carpeted with apple blossoms was somehow the same, substantively, spiritually, as a cold winter noon spent pruning, or a harvest evening heavy with the smell of juice and hay—this would have betrayed an ignorance not only of country life, but of the thousand seasons—of frogsong, of thunderheads, of first thaws—that hid within the canonical Four.

 

Similarly, a neighbor, looking upon the sisters’ persons, might also have remarked on the fidelity with which Nature had duplicated her creations, and considered it unnecessary to differentiate the two. But this also would have betrayed a failure of imagination. For while Alice and Mary looked so similar that there were times, passing before a mirror, or staring down into a quiet pool, that one might smile at the image in greeting—nevertheless, they had, over the years, both become aware of a fundamental and widening difference between them.

And had they been asked—though they were never asked—they would have both said that their recognition of the difference had arrived one warm September morning of their fifth year in the north woods, when, standing side by side, they’d watched their father ceremoniously pick the first apple of the season, consider it for a moment, and then, with a twinkle in his eye, cry, “For the fairest!” and hold it out to them in his hand. And that would have been it, a joke upon the tale they’d heard so many times, about a vengeful goddess and the judgement of a handsome prince. They would have raced to grab it, laughing, knocking the apple from his fingers, falling upon the warm earth, each knowing that whoever grabbed it would share it with her sister.

That was how it was supposed to happen, how it had happened each time before. That fateful year shouldn’t have been different, had they both not sensed that, in the briefest instant before their father realized his error, he had turned, almost imperceptibly, to Alice.

Excerpted from “North Woods” (c) 2023 Daniel Mason, Reprinted with permission of Random House.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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