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.)