Into the Forest (1998) by Jean Hegland
Back Jacket: Eva, eighteen, and Nell, seventeen, are sisters, adolescents on the threshold of womanhood—and for them anything should be possible. But suddenly their lives are turned upside down, their dreams pushed into the shadows, as sickness and anarchy rage across a country on the brink of collapse. In a time of suspicion and superstition, of anger, hunger, and fear, Eva and Nell are left to forage through the forest, and their past, for the keys to survival. They must blaze a new path into the future as pioneers and pilgrims—not only creatures of the new world, but creators of it. Gripping and unforgettable, Into the Forest is a passionate and poignant tale of stirring sensuality and profound inspiration—a novel that will move you and surprise you and touch you to the core.
Review: I chose to review this book because even though I read it at the beginning of last year, it’s one of those books that had me thinking about it far longer than the time it took me to actually read it. Since dystopian novels are really popular right now, this fits nicely with the trends (though I'm not sure it's exactly dystopian)but might not be on readers’ radars (har har) given that it’s twelve years old.
What’s really powerful about this book is the way Hegland shows how Eva and Nell go from living like we do now (CD players, washing machines, Internet, microwaves) to living in hunger and fear and fighting for survival. Which makes it extra eerie, of course. She is a master at the slow build, where things just keep getting worse and worse and you are only vaguely aware of it until BLAM! You are the frog in the boiling water.
Hegland’s portrayal of the sisters is nuanced and precise, following them as they change and disagree and grow over time. It’s a powerful testament to the strength of sisterhood. As harrowing as this book is (AND IT IS HARROWING, I DO NOT LIE)* it’s also markedly hopeful. Narrated by Nell (she keeps a notebook), the writing is beautiful and quiet:
It’s strange, writing these first words, like leaning down into the musty stillness of a well and seeing my face peer up from the water—so small and from such an unfamiliar angle I’m startled to realize the reflection is my own. After all this time a pen feels stiff and awkward in my hand. And I have to admit that this notebook, with its wilderness of blank pages, seems almost more threat than gift—for what can I write here that will not hurt to remember?
You could write about now, Eva said, about this time. This morning I was so certain I would use this notebook for studying that I had to work to keep from scoffing at her suggestion. But now I see she may be right. Every subject I think of—from economics to meteorology, from anatomy to geography to history—seems to circle around on itself, to lead me unavoidably back to now, to here, today.
And this excerpt, which I thought was a striking example of character development combined with excellent writing:
Last week I read in the encyclopedia about an indigenous tribe in Baja for whom meat was such a rare delicacy that they would tie a string to a scrap of animal flesh so they could chew it, swallow it, and then haul it back up, to have the pleasure of chewing and swallowing again. I was embarrassed when I read that, because it reminded me of myself, unable to let go of anything more, unable to face even the smallest loss.
That just stands out, doesn’t it?
One of the most interesting concepts in the book is that of the “fugue.” Determined to continue her studies, Nell learns the term from an encyclopedia’s description of amnesia (which suggests that some amnesiacs begin a life unrelated to their previous one because they simply cannot remember) and uses the term to describe their state of no gas, no electricity, and no grocery stores as “the lost time between the two halves of our real lives.” By the end, however, Nell has a very different opinion of which part of life is actually the fugue state.
Conclusion: 4/5 This book is powerful and haunting and hopeful. It has several layers to it, and multiple dynamics throughout. Hegland deals with consumerism, family, sisters, our relationship to nature and one another, survival, and love. I bought this book on a whim from a little used bookstore (hello, bookstore!) so I’ll be keeping it around. I probably won’t re-read it (who needs to live through that terror and anxiety twice??) but it definitely stayed with me, the way really good books should. And that cover is gorgeous! You can read several pages at Amazon here.
*Don’t do what I did, which was to read Into the Forest (Jean Hegland), Catching Fire (Suzanne Collins), and Goldengrove (Francine Prose) one after another. It sent me into a panic. I’m actually not kidding; I had to walk around shaking off the nervous energy and try to calm myself down.FTC: I'm not affiliated with the author, publisher, or other corporations associated with this product. This includes Amazon.