A sylvan delight: “The Forest” by Alexander Nemerov

Not far into Alexander Nemerov’s new book, I thought of the fighting trees in The Wizard of Oz. You know, the ones in the movie that yell at Dorothy for picking their fruit. Their trunks morph into talking faces, and their limbs into muscled arms hurling apples at Dorothy and the Scarecrow. Mr. Nemerov’s trees aren’t so blatantly anthropomorphic, but they are given characteristics of anger, as well as curiosity, wisdom, and recognition of their fate. They’re the backdrop in this historical work that’s part fact and part fiction, set during one decade in America, the 1830s. A series of stories imagines experiences of tradesmen, artists, politicians, travelers, and also historic figures, such as Edgar Allan Poe, Nat Turner, and the British actress Fanny Kemble.

In one story, an enslaved girl prays to God through her reflection in a water trough. She asks that her master see the error of his ways in wanting to sell her family. We learn her father helped build a canal in the wetlands of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, connecting the rich forest interior to Madison Bay, to help landowners get their products to market. The trough water reflects the watchful trees. The girl is Harriet Tubman, who becomes famous for her work on the Underground Railroad.

The stories are strikingly written with a siren-like poetic draw. They vary in length and atmosphere, some long, dark and intense, others short and simplistic. Endings typically lack conclusive meaning, but to be otherwise would hollow out the mystic effect.

In another story, an estate owner watches a clock peddler amble through nearby woods. He detests the plebian world of minutes and hours and turns away to lose himself in his art collection. Next we follow the peddler who among the trees feels a strong sense of individuality. In daily life, he is an unnoticed, strung-out salesman in a long supply chain of getting clocks into the world. He stumbles on a tree root, and we read:

… the tree was silent: crisp and sharp and wetly gleaming, flaring in rhythm with his vision; a curious solemn presence, inquisitive about this man kneeling before it.

The 1830s saw massive deforestation. It fueled the nation’s progress felling old oaks and elms to make the peddler’s clocks and meet the needs of New England towns. One tree would be left to ceremonially represent the vast forest the lumbermen had erased. “But when such a tree stood alone in a town or environs,” Mr. Nemerov writes, “it became menacing and freakish, like a giant looming over the tiny citizens who had slain its kin.”

In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the book, not the movie adaptation, the menacing trees don’t throw apples; they guard the enchanted forest of Oz. One could imagine that the woodlands once sweeping across a young America also were enchanted. It’s what many of Mr. Nemerov’s characters experience from a forest, and it’s something that’s irrevocable in this historic, sylvan delight.

A version of this review was broadcast throughout central Ohio during a local break of All Things Considered by NPR member station WOSU 89.7 FM. The Forest: A Fable of America in the 1830s by Alexander Nemerov is published by Princeton University Press.

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