Book Review: We Went to the Woods by Caite Dolan-Leach

We Went to the Woods – Caite Dolan-Leach (Random House, 2019)

Have you ever wanted to escape from the world? From your life? Have you ever been young and a bit desperate? Have you ever fallen in love with the idea of a person rather than truly the person themselves?

You might sympathize with Mack Johnson then. Even if, like me, the thought of joining a commune and abandoning civilization holds no appeal, you might still be able to understand why our narrator makes the choices she does and follows after the people she does.

After a spectacular and public humiliation, Mack, who is in her early twenties, is living with her parents again, working dead end jobs, unsure of her future. She meets Louisa, a vivacious and larger-than-life character who draws Mack into her tight circle, introducing her to Chloe, Jack, and Beau and Mack falls a little in love with each of them. But especially Louisa and Beau who are their leaders, the complex couple at the centre of this little group, the ones who spearhead the idea of moving to a rural farm and living off the land.

Predictably, things go awry. We know this from the beginning (because of common sense) but also because Mack is telling us the story from a certain degree of distance (though one might argue not entirely that distant). How things go wrong and why is what Mack steadily reveals to us as the story and their year continues. The book follows the first year the group lives on the farm, attempting to make a life for themselves apart from everything else. But, of course, people are not islands and even Thoreau went home to his mother for dinner.

Mack is not a particularly compelling character on her own but she works as the narrator because she is keenly observant and a little bit sneaky. She’s naive but she also has her own secrets and designs, just as the others do. She wants desperately to be in community with these people but really with anyone and so it’s hard not to sympathize with her at least a bit.

As the year at The Homestead (as they dub it) continues, Mack also begins to delve into the history of the land and a previous community that lived there. This didn’t feel like it added a lot to the present day story – I didn’t feel we needed further evidence that this type of commune is doomed to failure – but it does parallel nicely with some of the present day discoveries Mack makes about the land itself.

Dolan-Leach also does well at setting the story around the fall of 2016 and the US election. The Homestead is located in New York state and the main characters are all young, educated, privileged white people. Witnessing the upheaval of the nation and their own futures makes it easier to understand some of their decisions and their desperation about where their lives are going.

At the same time, Dolan-Leach does subtly draw our awareness to the privilege such a community entails. Each of the characters (even Mack who comes from a working class background) is able to participate in The Homestead because of the privileges they have and the education they’ve received. Turns out, escaping from society is not available to everyone in society.

(Rachel at pace amorelibri wrote a great review of We Went to the Woods here, which is what first put the book on my radar.)

10 thoughts on “Book Review: We Went to the Woods by Caite Dolan-Leach”

  1. I’ve read off-the-grid commune stories before, and what I gather is people are tired of commercialism and/or the ubiquitous nature of personal technology devices. What I typically see is a bunch of “enlightened” people who are “free spirits” who end up all sleeping together. When they realize they’re still human like everyone else, jealousy ensues, and the commune seems like a waste of a dream. What I like about your review is the way the election encourages people to exit the public sphere; this is new (to me) in commune lit.

    1. The book definitely follows that pattern but it does feel different by drawing on the current political scene and I think that helped me better understand why someone might be drawn to that lifestyle. I feel like a lot of commune-fit (if that’s a genre) is set in the 60s or 70s so setting it in present day made it feel a bit fresher too. Like, how do they charge their cell phones? Do they have wifi? These are all questions the author addresses.

    2. Yesterday, I was so salty that I was 100% avoiding the internet would make me happy. Other than blogging, most things online — social media, the news, the bullying — make me miserable. I was all ready for off-the-grid commune life!

    1. Yes, it is quite different from something like The Girls and I think the author uses the modern day setting and the current political climate to her advantage very well.

  2. So glad you enjoyed this one! I totally agree with your point about Mack not being a compelling character, but that fact making her a good narrator for this story.

    1. It’s funny, we have a federal election here in Canada this fall but the 2020 US election gets way more coverage and causes way more anxiety. Maybe we should all join an expedition to Mars…

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