Book Review: WE WENT TO THE WOODS, an experiment in communal living

Dolan-Leach, Caite - We Went to the Woods (2)We Went to the Woods
Caite Dolan-Leach

After suffering a public humiliation and being skewered by social media, twenty-something Mack Johnston retreated to her parents’ house in Ithaca, New York, returning to her high school catering job. Isolated and disillusioned, Mack was searching for connection, and she found that in Louisa, Beau, Chloe, and Jack, a foursome with easy camaraderie and undefined physical boundaries.

When Louisa suggests they move to a one hundred acre plot of land in a nearby rural area, the group quickly rallies around the idea of challenging capitalism and promoting environmentalism though building a self-sufficient community that they call the Homestead. They each pay Louisa’s father $10 to rent the land for a year and begin the process of preparing the rundown structures, planting the garden, and collecting firewood for the winter. Although filled with enthusiasm, only Jack has any farming experience, and the perils of an upstate New York winter are more dangerous than they expected. They also became embroiled in a feud with a neighbor using pesticides on his crops, charging that their use would harm the shared water table. Additionally, the pull of a more militant nearby group, the Collective, strained the relationships of the Homestead group.

Internally, the members of the Homestead, too, were less united than they realized. Far from having a collective vision, their individual goals overlapped but didn’t always correspond, and their secrets threatened to destroy the trust required for living in such close quarters. The loose sexual relationships, too, fomented jealousy and competition.

Mack learned that Hector, the city where the Homestead was located, had long ago housed a group that split from the Oneida Community. Diving into research, she resolved to learn as much as she could about these other communes to determine what went wrong–and to keep it from happening at the Homestead–unless, intentional communities were bound to fail.

In the first few chapters, before the group moved to the Homestead, I found the characters, especially Beau, and their manner of talking completely insufferable and didn’t know if I could handle an entire book filled with such pomposity. However, either I became used to it, or, when they moved to the country, these tendencies were diminished.

We Went to the Woods is packed with information, from Mack’s social media disgrace and our reliance on technology, to environmental dangers like pesticides and fracking and the legitimacy of efforts to curtail them, the possibility of free love (or complex marriage in Oneida terms), the danger of charismatic and controlling leaders, the extent to which the past plays out in the present, the possibility of running from pain, mental illness and psychiatric medication, and, of course, the viability of intentional communities.

While all of these ideas are important and valid, having them in one novel made it difficult to determine their relationship. Furthermore, some of these motifs, by the nature of their quantity, were not developed. These things combined made it difficult for me to fully understand Dolan-Leach’s purpose in including them, if not just for verisimilitude.

I shouldn’t make it sound like I didn’t like the novel, because I did, quite a bit in fact. Actually, I live in Hector, where the fictional Homestead is located. (As far as I know we aren’t swarmed with communes, but anything is possible!) I felt like I was reading the journal of a real person because the setting was so accurate, such as Ithaca with the pretention of Cornell-associated professors and students and the suicide risks of the gorges. Watkins Glen did indeed have a Wildflower Cafe, though it recently has been turned into an overpriced prohibition-themed bar. Wineries line Highway 414, and the Finger Lakes National Forest is over 16,000 beautiful acres.

Very sympathetic to the Homestead’s concerns about the environment and income inequality, I’d hoped for their experiment to succeed, and felt dread as their decisions seemed to pull them further and further apart, putting them in dangerous situations leading to inexorable paths. Still, the novel ended on a hopeful note for Mack and for those with a dream of doing things better.

Thank you to NetGalley and Random House for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Seneca Lake

Seneca Lake

Hector Winter (2)

Hector in Winter

Ithaca Falls

Ithaca Falls