Early in Lynn Darling's Out of the Woods, her second memoir after 2007's Necessary Sins, she moves to a house she had been eyeing in Woodstock, Vermont that she christens Castle Dismal. This is vastly different from visiting over many summers and being charmed by the house, as she had done before. This is real living now, owning a dog, contending with the repairs that Castle Dismal needs, and living much more simply than she had in New York City where, ten years earlier, she had become a widow and a single mother. With her daughter away at college, Lynn decides it's time to move. After becoming a Woodstock resident, she writes, "I had proposals for a few magazine stories I needed to write, and notebooks to comb through in search of ideas for longer projects, but the assertion of authority required to unpack the boxes, the conviction that I had anything left of a writer's curiosity and passion, were packed away as well."
Even as she doubted it, her conviction was always there - and is always here - throughout this personal journey that is meant for all of us. Darling is most certainly a writer's author, giving out words such as evanescence and synecdoche, which are just a joy to read. But there are also many times when it's impossible not to scream at her to stop dallying about and get on with it, especially in the latter half of the book, when she describes a course she takes in navigation, explaining how she learns to use a compass in order to, ultimately, find her way without a compass. She's an Author! These are Sentences! Yes, they're beautifully written sentences, but they gum up the works. Darling's long-windedness inspires the desire for a lit firecracker to be inserted into the book in order to speed it up at times.
Yet even as she goes searching for this sense of direction, trying to figure out who she is in this new stage of her life, she always holds fast to her curiosity and passion, which unfold through her gentle, appreciative, poetic writing of unforgettable, transformative experiences. It's not enough for her to only bring us along on her quest to know her part of Woodstock. She also tells the tales of such figures as Harold Gatty, who flew around the world with Wiley Post in just eight days in 1931, as well as Admiral Richard's Byrd expedition to Antarctic in the winter of 1934. Most of all, she brings so much of herself into Out of the Woods, not to rub readers' noses in how trying this experience was at times, but to make us think more closely about ourselves. The best section of this memoir finds Darling going through something she never expected while she was simply trying to know Woodstock and her neighbors: trying to create a new sense of self. It's in those pages that we're with Darling all the way, hoping she makes it through, wondering how she'll make it through, and then wondering how we would fare if an enormous life-anvil fell on us.
Despite the sometimes frustratingly slow writing, there is a lasting effect to Out of the Woods. We have been in Woodstock, getting to know Darling's neighbors, some frustrated with her early cluelessness about how life works there, we have learned about some of the shops, and we have been patient witnesses to Darling's transformation of her life and herself, as well as the transformation of Castle Dismal into a more livable way of life for her. Thinking back through all of the little and enormous moments in this book, I realized that a walk with my dogs through my usual path in my apartment complex wasn't usual at all. I was creating a map too, thinking about how well I know my home. How well do I know my streets? How well do I know my neighbors? Are they worth knowing like Darling's neighbors are? Are my local Food 4 Less and my local library as valuable to me as the town of Woodstock is to Darling, with its village library, the Whippletree Yarn Shop, the Runamuck "animal boarding and daycare business" and other places? Readers of Out of the Woods will be thinking about their environment in the same way. That is the gift Darling leaves for us.
This review was originally published in January 2014, and has been updated for the January 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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