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We Went to the Woods by Caite Dolan-Leach

Published by Random House on July 2, 2019

We Went to the Woods begins one year after “the accident.” It is narrated by a young woman named Makenzie who messed up her life and future, changed her name to Mack Johnston in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid notoriety, and started working as a part-time caterer. Mack meets Louisa, who introduces her to Chloe, Beau, and Jack. The five of them decide to create a sustainable, self-sufficient community of five in the woods as their own small contribution to creating a better world.

They live without electricity or plumbing in a farming co-op they call “the Homestead” on property owned by Louisa’s father. Mack discovers a diary that speaks to the utopian aspirations of a failed community that might or might not have existed on the same property. Using the diary as inspiration and given her educational background in anthropology, Mack decides to chronicle her experience with her four new friends, perhaps taking a larger view by making comparisons to the earlier commune.

Mack tells us that she joined the co-op to feed “that dark hungry part of me that needed purpose” and to assuage a “fear of purposelessness that left me panicking each night I spent alone.” The others have a mix of philosophical or political motivations for joining, some claiming they are following Thoreau or trying to learn how to live a better life. One is anti-capitalist, another pro-environment, but Mack tells them that individual motivations need not align to pursue common interests. A neighboring co-op member reminds them that they are “relatively well-off white kids,” not oppressed revolutionaries, a grounding message that some take to heart more than others.

Mack spends the first part of her joint living experience trying to figure out who is sleeping with whom. She only desires people who do not desire her, so sex seems unlikely, as much as she would like to partake. She notices tension between Chloe and Louisa, who sleep together when they aren’t taking turns sleeping with Beau. Women at other communes gather at the Farmer’s Market, where Beau seems to be a popular shopper, to the consternation of Louisa and Chloe and even Mack.

We Went to the Woods has a plot, but the story is driven by personalities. Jack is a mixture of “crotchetiness” and innocent joy. Beau’s mysterious absences are assumed to be a product of his devotion to bedding as many women as he can find. Chloe is a peacemaker while Louisa is abrasive and unsettled, always one spark short of conflagration. It is Louisa who wants to fight the neighboring landowner, who may be encroaching the co-op’s land with pesticides and nonorganic fertilizer.

Some of the novel’s intrigue results from the delayed revelation of just what Mack did while participating in a reality TV show, The Millennial Experiment, that screwed up her life and angered just about everyone. (It doesn’t seem that awful to me, but I’m not a Millennial.) The conflict with the nonorganic neighbor also contributes to the tension, although the novel avoids simplistic portrayals of farmers as good or evil depending on whether they use pesticides.

The plot begins to build steam in the second half, when it becomes clear that another collective, not far from Mack’s, is engaging in activism that includes property destruction. Mack is clueless about their conduct but begins to suspect that one or more of her co-op members might be participating in the activism, placing the rest of Mack's group at risk of reprisals. They are also at risk of felony arrests, given that prosecutors equate vandalism with terrorism when it is committed by activists.

Toward the novel’s end, Mack learns surprising information about the neighboring collective that helps her reinterpret events that take place early in the novel. The revelations also inspire the reader see key characters in a new light. By the end, the activism has placed some of Mack’s friends (and even Mack) in a dangerous position, largely because of their ineptness.

The novel invites readers to think about tradeoffs between the harm caused by fracking and unsustainable farming methods, on the one hand, and comfort, on the other. Living in the woods with no electricity and eating only locally grown foods is laudable but, as Mack comes to appreciate, difficult. Spending Christmas with her parents, on the other hand, is enough to make her yearn for a return to the woods. At the same time, the novel provokes thought about how activists can best confront fracking, groundwater pollution, and other socially harmful behavior that the law condones.

The story also asks readers to consider whether collectives are destined to fail, at least if they promote free love, because humans are wired to be possessive and jealous. Perhaps the story cheats a bit when it asks that question. One particular example is plainly destructive; not all communes are cults that are driven by charismatic but exploitive leaders. Yet the novel makes the valid point that utopian communities are less than utopian when members are sexually exploited or when they feel a “duty” to follow rules prescribed by community leaders about their sexual behavior. Whether a truly egalitarian community based on free love could thrive is an interesting question.

A few supporting characters might be dismissed as stereotypes, but the protagonist and a couple of other characters are complex. The philosophical questions the novel poses add meat to the stew. Where We Went to the Woods is going remains a mystery until the novel nears the end. Its unpredictability as suspense builds is its strongest virtue.


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