Reading: Caite Dolan-Leach, We Went to the Woods
Prairie Lights — Friday, July 19 at 7 p.m.
Caite Dolan-Leach’s second novel, We Went to the Woods, focuses on the cyclicity of the young person’s desire to abandon all and run with those who share their beliefs. She will read from her newest work at Prairie Lights on Friday, July 19 at 7 p.m.
The narrator and main character, Mack, decides to move to a run-down farm, after called the Homestead, with four of her new friends: Louisa, Chloe, Beau and Jack. The five millennials learn together how to live as cleanly as possible — only eating locally grown and organic food, communally renovating the new land, living by the sun’s hours and the freest of free love.
Dolan-Leach touches on several issues of devastation, the issues hippies would be protesting if their movement had never ended, including factory farms, the 2016 election and worker’s injustice.
We Went to the Woods considers what happens to a group when their activism becomes a contest and their members become inflexible. It forces the reader to mull over their echochamber and what would have to happen for it to reach toxic levels — especially if nobody thinks they could ever be wrong.
Little Village asked Caite Dolan-Leach a few questions about how the book interacts with our modern day.
In both We Went to the Woods and your debut novel Dead Letters, you write about people who have run away from the people and environment they used to know. How did you discover that isolation, longing and secrecy were themes you had an interest in writing about?
I tend to think that the theme chooses me rather than the other way around. That is to say, I start writing a story and then I realize that I’m interested in something like isolation or secrecy as I do. Certainly the notion of the “return,” of going away from a place and coming back to it, is something I still seem to be exploring — but that seems only appropriate, when writing about a place called Ithaca.
The novel centers around a group group of young people who renovate an old farm house to be a self-sustaining compound. What was it like to write a story about going back to nature in a time when our environment is suffering?
Writing this book was a direct response to our current environmental crisis. It’s hard not to imagine wanting to radically re-make the world when you consider what is happening to our natural environment and the reckless disregard with which society seems to be approaching this crisis. I’ve heard a lot of people fantasize about returning to nature and trying to seek our a more sustainable existence — this seems like a really natural response to a problem that doesn’t seem to be addressed on a larger scale.
The plot of the story is strikingly similar to real life events from the ’60s and ’70s — Jonestown, the Manson Family and Heaven’s Gate to name a few — fueled by young adults living in their own space and going by their own rules. Are the similar circumstances in your novel a nod to these histories or perhaps a warning, good or bad, that these events could repeat themselves?
Yes, I was absolutely thinking about these earlier projects, of people enacting their own modes of living — not just in the ’60s and ’70s, but throughout American history, since the first time white people arrived here. Choosing to live outside society is a high-stakes venture, and it’s very rare that it works out seamlessly. I think this particular history has shown that we do repeat ourselves, often in very predictable and foreseeable ways (sex and power-sharing seem to be endlessly problematic). So that sense of historical doom is naturally present in the book.
What were you reading while writing We Went to the Woods, if anything? Did you draw any inspiration from writers or other works that helped you find solid ground while working on the novel?
I was definitely reading some American Transcendentalism, particularly Thoreau. I read several histories about Utopian societies and their various shortcomings, and I focused particularly on the Oneida community, reading some very strange diaries and narratives about their project. I’m always reading lots of fiction but I did try to orbit around stories of close-knit friends during critical parts of the writing of the book — classics like The Secret History but also newer books like A Little Life and The Likeness.
What do you hope readers of We Went to the Woods will leave the pages with that they may not have had beforehand?
My hope is always that readers can get caught up in the story and lose themselves in fiction for a little while — if they’re engaged with the characters and the narrative, anything a reader takes away is theirs to do with what they like. If nothing else, I hope they leave with a few more voices in their imagination.