Into the Forest
by Jean Hegland
1996, Dial Press
I was lying in bed sick.
“Hey,” I said to my friend, “what book should I read?”
“Have you read Into the Forest?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“Read that,” he said. “Post-apocalypse.”
“Is it going to be like The Road?” I asked. I was sick. I didn’t want to read something as doom and gloom as The Road.
“Not really,” he said.
I’m glad I decided to believe him, even if I’m not sure he was telling the truth.
Nell and Eva are two teenage sisters, homeschooled in Northern California. Their mother dies of cancer a year before the power and telephones begin to fail, and soon the girls’ tiny world just shrinks and shrinks.
Into the Forest is a post-apocalyptic story unlike any other I’ve read. My usual preference is for huge sweeping sagas of reformed societies and shantytowns, or the epic adventures of a roaming band of misfits who just want to survive. You know, classic post-apocalyptic stuff. Into the Forest isn’t that. It’s an intimate portrait of a family. It’s about coming of age in a society that is, slowly and surely, disintegrating. It’s a book about death and love and it’s a book about the forest.
If you want the spoiler-free review, it’s as simple as what lies above: this is a damn good book and worth reading. (Which is to say, there are some spoilers ahead.)
There isn’t a ton to discuss about this book from an anarchist perspective. I caught no grievous errors of representation. Personally, I appreciated all the little hints that their parents—particularly their father—have good politics: his brief speeches are punctuated with cynical anti-capitalist laments, and there’s a book about the Spanish Civil War mentioned in passing. I appreciate these little tidbits because, to me, they feel like nods from the author saying “I know what’s up, politically, that’s just not what this book is about.”
The theme that does bear a bit of analysis, from my point of view, is the titular theme. The theme of returning to the forest. The book’s plot is a linear march away from innocence and civilization towards the primal and wild. When their mother dies, they try to pretend nothing is wrong and jump deeper into their social lives. When the power goes out, they try to pretend everything will just one day get better—Eva keeps dancing, to a metronome instead of a CD, and Nell keeps studying to get into Harvard. When their father dies, cut down by his own chainsaw, they try their hardest to pretend that things will get better. But slowly they snap out of it and accept their condition. And then, well, they more than accept their condition. Nell turns down her sweetheart, who wants her to walk to Boston on the hopes of finding civilization, and instead stays with her sister, alone at their house in the middle of nowhere.
Early on in the book, they describe the apocalypse as a fugue state, a loss of awareness of one’s identity that is sandwiched between two periods of normalcy. By the end of the book, the protagonist determines that civilization itself has been the fugue state—that we as a species were born of the wild and that it is to the wild they have returned. To this effect, they burn down their house and take off, into the forest.
The whole book is spent watching them build towards these realizations, and it’s a book full of uncomfortable decisions that won’t sit well with most readers (including myself). It’s not primitivist propaganda, it’s not pro-civilization propaganda. It’s just a strange, emotional, beautiful analysis comparing two ways of being. And for that, it’s one of the best, most honest, and most original post-apocalyptic stories out there.