Recommended by Andrea Siso
The lean, taut narrative of Nightwoods creates a story in which the setting holds as much spark as the characters, and is the central factor that brings forth the theme of the overwhelming power of nature. Charles Frazier writes about a young woman, Luce, who renounces the perils of civilization in favor of the raw beauty of the mountainous Appalachian South. In her self-exile, Luce attempts to find solace in the quiet mother the woods provides, but instead has to uphold the natural responsibility of taking care of her sister’s twin son and daughter after she is murdered by her husband, Bud. Unwittingly, Luce kindles a gradual maternal love for these children, and attempts to offer them security from their belligerent father while teaching them to tame their primal proclivity for fire. In this novel, Frazier offers depictions of various manifestations of nature—fire, the woods, the mountains—in such a way that underlines the bonds and emotions expressed by the characters. Though at times edging on the melodramatic, Frazier’s writing ultimately conveys the timeless message of survival and endurance.
Luce’s name speaks to her character, as lucere in Latin means “to shine.” Rather than allow her rape to smother her, she takes to the woods where her light becomes radiant. She embraces this secluded environment as preferable to the ugliness she had experienced at the hands of “civilized” mankind, for she considers “life” to have gotten “in the way” of nature. Her love for the wild becomes clear and is exemplified when she chooses to burn her canoe—her vehicle to society that made “town…only twenty minutes away.” She chooses to be an outsider and enjoys her removed existence. When she becomes caretaker to her niece and nephew, she recognizes the primitive, wild natures of these “tiny cavemen.” They are silent and communicate their angst through the physical act of destruction, markedly in setting things on fire. Yet, she is able “to shine” for these children and thus tame their rawness. Luce develops a love for them born of responsibility, a commitment stemming from her belief that “you take care of whatever needy things present themselves to you during your passage through [the world]. Otherwise you’re worthless.” With her love, she demonstrates to the twins that fire can be curbed to be warming, lapping flames of positive emotion.
Fire resurfaces throughout the novel as a metaphor for passionate emotion. Just as fire can be destructive when rampant and useful when controlled, too much passion can lead to vicious sentiment. Bud, the central antagonist of the novel, exemplifies this notion, as he justifies his flaming violence for its “spur-of-the-moment…purity.” After killing his wife, he passionately seeks to find the money he’s convinced she’s hidden. It is this drive that brings him to target his children. His desire utterly consumes him and can potentially consume all in his path, leaving devastation in his wake. The tempered love Luce exhibits works to stem this, in order to provide protection for her charges.
In essence, this is a violent story made palatable by Frazier’s measured and evocative prose. Though this characteristic of the novel actually interrupts any immediate pull to draw readers in, it provides a quiet strength akin to Luce’s that proves to be quite compelling. This is beautifully evidenced in the diction of the following descriptive passage where Luce reflects upon nature as an overwhelming force:
“The black hole [of nature] was before life and beyond life. If you dipped a ladle of that water and drank it, visions would come so dark you wouldn’t want to live in the world that contained them. You’d be ready to flee toward the other darkness summed up in death, which is only distant kin to the black hole and the liquid it cups.”
Frazier fluidly guides the reader through Nightwoods, bolstering the inherent tension of his plotline through this understated style of writing.
Nature in its many guises becomes so important to this novel due to Frazier’s lush depictions, which indicate his profound knowledge of the region. He is able to manipulate natural elements and artfully integrate them into his story, implementing them as undercurrents to character interactions and relationships. In one of his many descriptions of setting, Frazier entwines fire and flora as, “poplars were already half bare and long grasses drooped burnt from the first frost. Bands of lavender and state clouds moving against a metallic sky, denoting the passage of autumn. Fallen leaves blown on the porch.” Though these passages add texture to his novel, there were perhaps so many of them that Frazier’s focus veered from adding depth to his plotline. For instance, in their shadow Bud began to seem like a caricature supervillain by the end of the novel, given no character depth aside from his bloodthirst.
The core value of Nightwoods lies in this novel’s superior construction. Frazier’s frequent use of fiery diction and imagery burns the book’s theme into readers’ minds, and adds to the notion of nature as an overwhelming force. Yet, perhaps the novel focuses too much on displaying Frazier’s writing toolbox rather than the core story, which was predictable at best. This can be easily forgiven, however, by relishing the descriptions Frazier offers of the Appalachian South of the late 1950’s. The enduring quality of nature is thus injected into the text, allowing Nightwoods to attain lasting literary worth.