Lost and found in the woods
It has been said that the best place to start a story is at the beginning. With the first page of John Lane’s new novel Whose Woods These Are (Mercer University Press, 2020, 224 pg.) we literally begin at the beginning. “The first woods grew up far back in time, ancient as the last Ice Age, back beyond any notion we would call now.” After a brief description of how a woodlands came to be formed and how it looked through the ages up until the present day, we find ourselves in the western-most uplands of South Carolina and in the woods with two families who own hundreds, if not thousands, of acres of undeveloped property and living side by side.
Lane takes us by the hand and into these woods, these properties, and with amazing detail of flora and fauna and lavish geographical description we find ourselves there, too, and participating in a storyline which begins as a love story between two young people from both of these families, but soon escalates into a feud based on property boundaries and an incident involving the shooting of a deer along said boundary lines.
With the Mitchells and the Paganos as the two conflicting families and their two young offspring as the main characters, Jae and Caddy, and the woods as a character in and of itself, our story unfolds. Old Doc Pagano, as he is known, goes missing down in the Mitchell Bottoms. A search ensues not only to find Old Doc but to find Jae Mitchell, who the Pagano family of four-wheeling, land-rich, dope-smoking militants decides has probably murdered the patriarch of the family and hence the conflict and the action is ignited.
Along with the major conflict there is also a conflict of interest, as Caddy has recently become a member of the local police force and as the officer in charge assigned to investigate Old Doc’s disappearance as well as Jae’s possible involvement as a suspect, has an ongoing romantic relationship with Jae that goes back many years.
And so in what reads like an intricate film script and a murder mystery plotline that is akin to Poirot meets Sherlock Holmes, our story unfolds. Most of the scenes take place in the woods and in Mitchell Bottoms and plays out like a human pinball game with all the characters running into one another in potentially dangerous if not deadly circumstances, Lane’s individualized chapter presentations allow us to see things through the eyes of each of the major characters. While knowing from the outset what happened in the woods that day that Old Doc Pagano disappears and knowing of Jae’s innocence of any accusations of having killed Old Doc, we are led through the woods and through the minds of our characters in what becomes by the end of the book a hunting hound dog search of the hill country just north of Greenville, South Carolina. So, there’s lots of action, but even so it’s the quality of the writing by John Lane that carries the day and keeps our noses buried deep into the pages of this book. Much as in his previous novel, Fate Moreland’s Widow, which I wrote in these pages was, I thought, one of the very best Appalachian Noir novels to have come out of these hills, Whose Woods These Are, with its characterization of “the woods” that highlights what I’m going to call “the geneology of the land” loses no ground to his former masterpiece.
“The woods were known, and familiar. The trees all had names, scientific and common ones, and all autumn they shouted at the dawning days. There were fourteen different species of Quercus, oaks, with leaves like hands, stained copper, yellow, and bright red by November. There were other yellows, too — the high-ground hickories and the poplars. And there were streamers of tangerine sourwood branches bursting from the leaning trunks of the mature twisted trees, the forest’s contortion artists, anything to find the light. The scarlet of the dogwood understory sprinkled down the slopes speaking their language too. The maples had their dialect — red as flame. And then the closer you got to the river, the sweet gums and sycamores yelled burnt-orange verbs at the dawn.”
Meanwhile, back at the ranch and Jae’s more than humble house in the woods, he and officer Caddy are having a pointed conversation as to Jae’s innocence and what he is going to do to avoid the trigger-happy, gun-toting Paganos as well as the helicopters and the horde of local law enforcement. Jae has a Plan B in case his Plan A doesn’t pan out as the plot is ramped up with the escalation of the love story side of the storyline. No matter what the outcome of the manhunt is, in his epilogue at the end of the book, Lane sends us home with these words from a higher realm and as the naturalist that he is and has built his literary reputation around:
“Some call trees in a forest a form of community. Some say they send their roots deep into soil horizons, intertwine, and communicate in ways older than we can ever understand. Some say the big woods is only standing timber wasting away, sick for a sawmill. An oak can live four hundred years or more. A man or a woman, maybe a hundred. Does this sway the way we look at the woods? Are the woods more than a backdrop for our stories.?”