What leads to the desire to withdraw from a world that feels too complex? In Caite Dolan-Leach’s “We Went to the Woods,” five privileged young adults, who have absorbed the local history of communes and utopian communities that surround Ithaca, withdraw to a farmstead owned by Louisa’s family. Louisa is accompanied by friends Beau, Chloe, Jack, and the late addition, Mack. Mack has fled to her parents’ home from a graduate school experiment in New York City that has brought her great shame, and when Louisa extends the invitation to live close to the land, Mack hurls herself at the opportunity. Readers know that Mack is hiding a secret, but as seasons change, other, more dangerous secrets will be revealed.
Dolan-Leach captures the beauty and brutality of the gorges and waterfalls that are the legacy of Ice Age glaciers. And locals will enjoy moments of identifying where the action is taking place. A scene at Ithaca Falls, which is followed by a chat in “the bar across the street,” should strike a chord. But locals are also familiar with the challenges of the gorgeous countryside that appears safe to the inexperienced eye. Anyone who has lived a year in this area knows that its short-growing season and rocky soil make it a challenge, and the potential of six or seven months of winter should force them to stock up on provisions before beginning their experiment. Instead, right from the start, residents decide that they will only eat what they can grow or barter for. As one might expect, that means there’s a lot of time spent eating a sub-optimal and calorie-poor diet.
They also decide to forego electricity and modern plumbing, to scavenge for deadfall or sick trees in order to collect wood, and to utilize the most basic forms of farming—hand tools and no pesticides or chemical fertilizers—and to support themselves as a community by selling goods they have made or grown in the local farmers’ market. Mack, who narrates the story, insists that they understand that the farm as some kind of solution for a world that was “irredeemably fucked-up and horrifying” was perhaps “idealistic and utopian.” But Mack asks in a moment of anguish:
“What were the alternatives? Wait for the icecaps to melt, for the workers’ revolution, for the government to do something about the future that was so clearly evaporating before our eyes? Better to try something, even if that something involved composting toilets and bathing in the murky cow pond. We thought we had a responsibility to take action because of our privileged vantage point, to lead our misguided cohort away from Whole Foods and Apple to a compostable, probiotic future. The Homestead was five answers to a dilemma that needed billions of responses, but we could hardly make things worse, right?”
As they reveal in conversations among themselves and peers, much of their knowledge of how the world works has come from reading and university classes, not from direct contact with those they often champion. In one passage, an argument about whether what they are doing is possible on a larger scale, insults are exchanged over who best understands those who live in “the ghetto” or the “exploited working class.” They’re the kind of statements that often come from those who have never actually interacted with anyone outside their comfort zone, and the author is smart enough to let their combination of arrogance, privilege, and ignorance speak for itself.
And because they are living inside some idealistic view of how they can change the world through their own purity, the five neglect the ways in which human emotions—jealousy, envy, anger, lust—can have an impact on any sense of community. Mack has the advantage of discovering a diary kept by a member of a previous community—similar to the Oneida Community—who documents the issues within his own Utopia. And yet, despite having the proof in front of her, Mack fails to foresee the terrifying events that are about to descend upon them.
Dolan-Leach crafts an answer to the earlier question about whether they can make things worse. This clever and suspense-driven novel reveals just how that occurs.