Book Review

When asked for his motto in a 2016 interview, Norman Lock answered: “One must write as if a book really could change the world.” It’s no wonder, then, that he’s attracted to American writers of the nineteenth century—notables like Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, and Walt Whitman. After all, they wrote books that really did change the world.

Lock’s new novel, A Fugitive in Walden Woods, is the fourth in a loose series grappling with those early American literati who can, in some ways, be credited with inventing the nation’s idea of itself: Twain’s sophisticated folksiness became the quintessential American voice, Poe’s gothic tales mined the dark veins of our national psyche, and Whitman’s exuberant poetry tried to give us our own Homeric epic.

In A Fugitive in Walden Woods, Lock turns his gaze to the New England trio of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who framed America’s troubled, contradictory relationship with nature and authority. Ventriloquizing historical figures is always tricky, but Lock does it with just the right mix of reverence, humanity, and skepticism. The story, unfolding across five seasons from 1845 to 1846, is rich with illuminating incidents and lovely meditative passages, bathing its subjects in a light that is more revealing than worshipful.

But the novel’s boldest (and most dangerous) choice is to present itself as a memoir by Samuel Long, an entirely fictional escaped slave who has fled to Massachusetts via the Underground Railroad. Writing nearly twenty years later in the early days of the Civil War, Samuel looks back on his time at Walden under Emerson’s patronage.

Lock is hardly the first white author to inhabit the voice of a black slave, but the question of to what degree it’s appropriate is far from settled. (The debate around The Confessions of Nat Turner turns fifty this year.) At the very least, such a choice removes all margin for error. But in some ways it makes perfect sense for this book—who has more experience of nature and authority than a slave? Who better to hold the transcendentalists’ pampered feet to the fire? Samuel Long’s life is a thorny commentary on their belief in the self-reliant individual, the corrupting power of institutions, and the essential goodness of people.

Like many of the nineteenth-century works it draws on, Fugitive is a very physical novel about men living a life of the mind in creaturely proximity to nature, replete with fishing jaunts, sojourns into the wilderness, flashes of violence, and reveries while ice skating. Samuel arrives at Walden with the splendid timing so often displayed by protagonists in historical fiction, just as Henry David Thoreau is embarking upon what would become the most celebrated period of his life—when he renounced worldly things, puttered around the garden, and famously spent the night in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax. This last act of disobedience was lionized in Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee’s 1969 play, but looks fairly ridiculous when juxtaposed with Samuel’s truly radical reclamation of himself from bondage. (The Concord jail is portrayed as a sleepy boarding house for drunks and idlers, watched over by an Andy Griffith-like sheriff, while the Virginia plantation of Samuel’s youth is a pastoral vision of hell.)

Lock’s writing is smooth and precise, braiding the worldly and the spiritual together in a lucid, elegant balance. In one remarkable episode, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Samuel Long take a rowboat up the Sudbury River. Amid a gently evoked setting (“the spice of wild primrose . . . the reeling of the azure sky”), the two white men exchange philosophical pearls and take turns at the oars. They completely forget that Samuel has been rowing the entire time—his labor is taken for granted. Thus ignored, Samuel falls into a daydream: “I saw myself commandeering the boat and pressing them into a gang of two to row me across the Middle Passage in reverse.” He imagines a life “on the banks of the Congo” where “I was myself at last.” But just as quickly, he realizes that this fatuous dream will solve nothing: “What was Africa to me? . . . America belong[s] to me in spite of its sickness.” Freedom, Samuel discovers, is a spectrum, and there are certain levels he will never reach.

Throughout the novel, Samuel feuds with feelings of admiration and resentment toward his white companions. He calls Thoreau “extraordinary,” and credits Emerson with “illuminating my benighted mind.” But as he’s drawn into a cozy world of garden chores and abolitionist tea parties, Samuel finds that his dealings with Concord society still have a paternalistic tinge. When Emerson tells him that he desires “your advancement,” Samuel is inwardly exasperated: “Were we always to be treated as children?” Outwardly, he is blunt, telling Emerson, “I want to be more than a fancy nigger you can show off like a trick pony!”

Even the place itself, Walden, is not quite the refuge it first appears. It may be “heaven under our feet” for Thoreau, but death at the hands of white men nearly finds Samuel on multiple occasions. He concludes that there is “no last stop on the Underground Railroad     . . . no safe haven.” In other words, the narrative of a flight to liberty from the brutal South to the benevolent North is little more than a reassuring fantasy.

Whether Lock has adequately rendered the interiority of a slave, I can’t say. But at least his portrayal isn’t simplistic, and his quality as a novelist shines through. The principal characters are brimming with desires, doubts, and hypocrisies, and are capable of generosity, small-mindedness, genius, and naïveté. They feel at once sharply captured and mysterious—like ordinary mortals who were capable of changing the world.

About the Reviewer

Benjamin T. Miller is a writer whose fiction and essays have appeared in ZYZZYVA, Santa Monica Review, Epiphany, Hobart, and others. He earned his MFA from UC Irvine, and lives in Cambridge, MA.