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.
4 thoughts on “Into the Forest, by Jean Hegland”
This is one of my favorite PA books of all time. Glad to hear you enjoyed it.
I read this book when it was first published, and it has been one of my favorites ever since. I recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it yet. I think it shows a brave, soulful alternative to the glum, post-apocalyptic worlds usually portrayed in literature. The two sisters are compelling characters, and their love for one another is a remarkable story in its own right. The way the apocalypse happens, “not with a bang, but a whimper”, seems spot on to me. Yet there was one tiny burr under my saddle as I read this book, and I hope you will allow me to express my feelings about this.
I felt that there was plenty of overlooked white privilege in this book. Let me explain- the book is set in rural Northern California. IIRC, the author, Jean Hegland, lived at the time this was written in Healdsburg, CA, in northern Sonoma County. I am a native of Sonoma County, as I was born and grew up there, and lived most of my adult life (except for the past ten years) in Sonoma County, between Guerneville and Santa Rosa. I am also a Native of Sonoma County in that I am a Southern Pomo, and an enrolled member of the Federated Tribes of Graton Rancheria. Our people have resided in this area for probably the last 10,000 years (best guess, based on archeological sites found at the coast near Schoolhouse Beach). Some of us are still there, but many of us are not because we can no longer afford to live in the lush “Wine Country” of California. While you noticed a few nods to the “good politics” of the parents in this story, what I noticed were the markers of a certain type of monied liberal class that all but invaded Northern California in the late 60’s and 70’s – “rich hippies”, if you will, who bought up cheap agricultural land for their “back to the land” communes and ranches, and later for their “craft” wineries, driving real estate prices and the cost of living in this area through the roof. The homeschooling, the private dance lessons, the “studying to get into Harvard”, hell, just the fact that they live on several acres of pristine coastal ridgetop property puts this family way out of the league of 99% of the local families that I grew up with. Ironically, there is a small nod to our tribal culture in the book, a reference to the sisters going into the forest to live on gathered acorns as the natives used to do (implying that native culture is also a dead culture). The bitter irony here is that the ability to have access to the bounty of the natural world of rural Northern California, an ecosystem which once sustained more native people than probably any other in the United States, is largely out of reach of most of our tribal members now. I could no longer afford to live in California, so I moved up to Portland, Oregon, where I was able to afford to buy a small cottage (and probably displaced a native Oregonian as well). So when the apocalypse comes, I guess I (and plenty of others) will be scrabbling around Portland trying to survive with what primitive acorn mush making skills I have here in the urban wild. Hey, at least I know where there’s a good oak tree on MLK Blvd. :)
Hey, thanks so much for contributing!