Set in the near-future, Into the Forest focuses on the relationship between two teenaged sisters as they struggle to survive the collapse of society.
In many ways, Nell and Eva have experienced a near-idyllic childhood, growing up miles from the nearest neighbor in the forests of northern California. Their father, an iconoclastic grade school principal, has decided to keep them out of school, and their mother has encouraged each of them to follow her own passions. As a result, Eva is determined to become a ballet dancer, while her younger sister, Nell, hopes to matriculate at Harvard.
Despite the fact that their happy world is rocked when their mother dies of cancer, they and their father are determined to carry on. Even as terrorism, a distant war, increasingly unpredictable weather, and an unstable economy, challenge the reliability of social order and infrastructure, their little family continues to hoard its resources and attempts to keep up its spirits as they wait for the lights to come back on, the phone to ring, and the lives they have been anticipating to return to them. But when their father is killed in an accident, and a dangerous stranger arrives at their door, the girls confront the fact that they must find some new way to grow into adulthood.
Into the Forest has been called both poetic and a page-turner. It is the kind of book that some readers read slowly in order to savor every sentence, and that costs other readers a night’s sleep, when they find that they cannot put it down.
Hegland’s powerfully imagined first novel will make readers thankful for telephones and CD players while it underscores the vulnerability of lives dependent on technology. The tale is set in the near future: electricity has failed, mail delivery has stopped and looting and violence have destroyed civil order. In Northern California, 32 miles from the closest town, two orphaned teenage sisters ration a dwindling supply of tea bags and infested cornmeal. They remember their mother’s warnings about the nearby forest, but as the crisis deepens, bears and wild pigs start to seem less dangerous than humans. From the first page, the sense of crisis and the lucid, honest voice of the 17-year-old narrator pull the reader in, and the fight for survival adds an urgent edge to her coming-of-age story. Flashbacks smartly create a portrait of the lost family: an iconoclastic father, artistic mother and two independent daughters. The plot draws readers along at the same time that the details and vivid writing encourage rereading. Eating a hot dog starts with “the pillowy give of the bun,” and the winter rains are “great silver needles stitching the dull sky to the sodden earth.” If sometimes the lyricism goes a little too far, this is still a truly admirable addition to a genre defined by the very high standards of George Orwell’s 1984 and Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker.
This beautifully written and often profoundly moving novel by gets mired early in a murderously sluggish pace as patient readers wait for something to happen.
We don’t mind at first because so much has already happened to the two sisters: Nell, 17, who narrates “Into the Forest” by keeping a “chronicle of this time” on one of the few remaining pieces of notebook paper in the area, and Eva, 18, a gifted ballet dancer who practices to a metronome because there is no electricity.
Somewhere in the near future, a dozen miles outside a town like Cloverdale or Red Bluff or Redding (it’s called “Redwood” in the book), the two sisters try to carry on with life in their family cabin, gradually realizing that the worst has happened.
Electricity sputtered to a halt long ago, as did telephone service and running water. Mail delivery also slowed to a stop. Banks and businesses in town closed. Planes stopped flying. Stores were looted and abandoned. Gas became invaluable, as did antibiotics, plastic bags, working batteries and dependable (not rumored) word from “the outside.”
If it all sounds too outlandish Northern California writer Jean Hegland and fictional to be possible, Nell recalls “how quickly everyone adapted” in another time, when “people beyond our forest” learned how “to drink bottled water, drive on overcrowded freeways and deal with the automated voices that answered almost every telephone. Then, too, they cursed and complained, and soon adjusted, almost forgetting their lives had ever been any other way.”
But now, everyone knows something is really wrong — even before batteries ran out of energy and radios sputtered news of a vague, distant war “taking place to protect freedoms, to defend a way of life the politicians promised,” writes Nell. “Some people said it was that war that caused the breakdown.”
“Breakdown” is a nice word for what’s going on. Word has come to Redwood that the war never ended; the overseas currency market has failed; a paramilitary group has bombed the Golden Gate Bridge; an earthquake has caused meltdown in one of California’s nuclear reactors; overuse of pesticide has ruined farmlands; the ozone is full of holes; welfare has crumbled; schoolchildren are shooting each other; and outbreaks of once-curable disease (strep, meningitis) are killing multitudes.
At the cabin where Nell and Eva’s mother gave them an excellent home-school education before her death from cancer, and where their father died in a chain-saw accident while trying to “make do,” the two sisters struggle to shore up the life they once took for granted. “I remember emptying wastebaskets that would seem like fortunes now,” says Nell, “baskets filled with cardboard cores of toilet paper rolls, with used tissues, broken pencils, twisted paper clips, sheets of crumpled notebook paper and empty plastic bags.” This is where the story bogs down. Aside from preserving the past, meeting an unexpected visitor or two and considering rumors that civilization has returned elsewhere, they experience nothing but worry and longing, grief for their parents and the vagaries of a make-do life. As Eva dances compulsively “to the dead, ungiving rhythm of the metronome . . . her dancing finer than ever,” Nell compulsively reads the encyclopedia, her only way to study for an entrance exam that one day, when the “breakdown” ends, will admit her to Harvard.
We do find it intriguing that when Nell gets to the word “amnesia,” she learns that during prolonged loss of memory, amnesiacs may enter a “fugue state” — a new life unrelated to the previous one. Nell looks out at the empty yard and thinks, “This is our fugue state — the lost time between the two halves of our real lives.” That, we realize as the pace gradually quickens, is what this exquisitely conceived book is all about.
Somewhere “out there,” destiny awaits everyone; wholeness is for those who choose not to forget what is deeply, possibly human. To watch Nell and Eva use the current “breakdown” to move toward a chosen future is to understand the depth and great importance of Hegland’s message. After all, readers of this book, as Nell points out, are adjusting to the first stages of the “breakdown” already.
—Patricia Holt, San Francisco Chronicle
Nell and Eva are two young sisters who are not quite women but no longer children. During the delicate years of teenage emotional and physical maturity, the world around them collapses from economic failure and the sisters find themselves completely isolated from civilization.
Nell is the younger of the two and has been struggling with losing the close relationship with her sister when Eva finds an obsessive passion for dancing. They live with their parents in the last home on a rural road, miles away from town. Although the girls are home-schooled, they venture weekly into town with their father and forge new and exciting friendships with local teenagers in the town square.
Shortly after their mother passes away from cancer, signs of an economic collapse begin to emerge with regular power outages, gas shortages and constant news of war, plagues and rioting on the radio and television. Eventually, the power turns off and never comes back on. With no gas for the truck, the girls and their father are unable to return to town and the girls lose the connections they had made over the summer.
Using food harvested from their garden, they are able to can and store a good amount of food to last through a winter. Both of the girls believe with all of their heart that everything will return to normal soon. Nell will be able to go to Harvard and so she continues to study by candlelight, reading each and every entry in the family’s collection of encyclopedias. Eva continues to dance without music, convinced that once order is restored she will join a dance troupe in a big city.
Their dreams come to a close when their father is fatally wounded in the woods while felling trees. The girls are alone with no one to guide them or give them hope. Yet they cling to what little strength they have left and dare to keep their dreams alive.
After Nell almost leaves her sister to follow the dream of her boyfriend who shows up months later at her door, and after Eva is brutally raped by a stranger, the girls slowly succumb to the realization that things are not going to change. They need to take drastic steps to take care of themselves and forget their dreams. Nell lets go of her childish crush and Eva stops dancing. Together they work the land, learn about the forest and what it can provide for them and store food for the winter.
After Eva’s baby comes, the result of her painful rape, the girls decide to take one last step. They burn their home and move to the forest where they feel comfortable.
I really enjoyed the ending because I understood it. I don’t think I would have been able to burn the house down because it offered protection and it also contained things they could use. But the sisters saw the house as something holding them back, preventing them from moving on. It was the last thing which kept them tethered to the dreams of old, the dreams which would never come to fruition.
With the house gone, they could let go of their old hopes and dreams and were free to create new ones. The house also made them targets to looters and rapists and so the destruction of their home was a form of protection, both physically and emotionally.
Into the Forest can be seen not only as a coming of age story but as a very relevant book as far as the economic crisis is concerned. This is a plausible event which could happen, especially in today’s eerily similar circumstances. The book was written in 1998 almost as if the author could sense what was to come. The book succeeded in making me cringe with fear and foreboding!
I enjoyed this book and would read something else by the author in a heartbeat.
—Rebecca Skane, Seacoast Online
Brisk, feminist, contemplative first novel about the end of contemporary civilization and the survival of two sisters. Hegland is vague about civilization’s downfall. She places a wife, a husband, and their two daughters, Eva and Nell, on 50 acres of second-growth redwood forest in northern California—the idea seeming to be that since the location is remote to begin with, news of the outside world would filter in slowly. There’s a war somewhere, and ever more virulent strains of viruses rage through the population; then, suddenly, there’s no more food available in stores, no more gasoline, no more television. The mother dies; the father pushes his dreamy daughters to learn such humble skills as gardening and canning. In the best scene, the father’s chain saw kicks back and cuts him, and his daughters are helpless, unable to do more than watch as he bleeds to death. They bury him where he lies. Slowly, because the alternative is starvation, Nell learns the wisdom of the forest: killing a wild sow with a rifle she barely knows how to fire, using herbs for medicines and tea, gathering acorns to pound into flour. A boy comes to take Nell away, but she cannot leave Eva; though sisters by birth, Hegland turns the girls into lovers—and ideologically pure lovers, at that. Mystically, they both produce milk to nurse Eva’s son, the product of a rape by a passing thug. Fearful of more such violence, the sisters burn down their father’s house and take up housekeeping in a mammoth redwood stump. They’ve learned nature’s lessons and, purified, are prepared for humankind’s great destiny: to live in the woods like animals. A little apocalypse goes a long way. Beautifully written, however, and Hegland’s knowledge of organic gardening, fruit drying, etc., is impeccably authentic.
“…Beautifully written and often profoundly moving…To watch Nell and Eva use the current ‘breakdown’ to move toward a chosen future is to understand the breadth and great importance of Hegland’s message.”
— Patricia Holt, San Francisco Chronicle
“Hegland’s story—imagistic, lyrical and ecologically intelligent—challenges the reader to imagine the choices available should our technology fail us….Hegland writes with a poet’s sensitivity and depth….”
— Alice Evans, The Oregonian
“INTO THE FOREST is so thrillingly written that it becomes a page turner from its very start….an exhilarating, visionary novel…”
— Elizabeth Hand, Fantasy and Science Fiction
Hegland “has the ability to make the giant redwood trees seem palpable, to allow readers to breathe in the smell of the rich humus on the floor of the forest.”
— Lisa S. Nussbaum, Library Journal
“This reviewer is better known for acerbity than unqualified recommendations, but I do now suggest you go straight out and buy this book.”
— Diane de Avalle-Arce, Small Press
“The plot draws readers along at the same time that the details and vivid writing encourage rereading….a truly admirable addition to a genre defined by the very high standards of George Orwell’s 1984 and Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker.
— Publishers Weekly
“Hegland’s sweet and sadly elegiac tale is an engrossing coming-of-age adventure.”
— Whitney Scott, Booklist
“A real gem, Hegland’s first novel…has all the charm and depth of such favorites as Snow Falling on Cedars and Cold Sassy Tree.”
— Marge Harrington, Austin American-Statesman
“Hegland’s portrayal…overflows with sensitivity and compassion.”
— Paul Rhodes, Yorkshire Evening Press
“By rights this tale of the complete collapse of society and technology should be a depressing story, but the author has turned it onto a triumph.”
— Barbara Howe, Dorset Evening Echo
“….a beguiling and haunting tale of redemption.”
— Evie Arup, Independent on Sunday
“Hegland’s debut novel…is beautifully written, moving, and the kind of tale one has to call “wise”—a small masterpiece, in fact.”
— David Pringle, Interzone
Book Group Guide
- Into the Forest seems to convey that the stripped-down life of a hunter-gatherer would be better for us as a species. What Nell and Eva do is clearly right for them. Would it be right for people in general? For women? Is it a tenable ideal for any but the very young, very fit, and very adaptable?
- Does the lifestyle the sisters adopt in Into the Forest imply or require an abandonment of the whole notion of “advanced civilization?”
- The Women’s Review of Books said of Into the Forest: “Cultural trauma forces the heroines to inhabit and regard their world in radical new ways, [as] recipients of wisdom they did not want but are better off for having.” Do you agree with this? Why or why not?
- How would you answer the question raised by this novel and posed in The Sunday Oregonian: “Where are we heading, and do we know how to survive with our humanity intact if we continue in this direction?”
- Before razing the house in which they had spent their entire lives and turning to the forest for all their necessities, Nell chooses three books to take with her: Native Plants of Northern California for Eva since it may have already saved her life; a book of stories of those who had lived in the forest for Burl; and the encyclopedia’s index for herself. In choosing the index she says, “I could not save all the stories, could not hope to preserve all the information—that was too vast, too disparate, perhaps even too dangerous. But I could take the encyclopedia’s index, could try to keep that master list of all that had once been made or told or understood.” If you could take only one item from your current existence into the future, and that one item was a book, which one would you choose and why? Why do you think that Hegland would choose to describe the retaining of information as “too dangerous?”
- Some of the most poignant moments of the story are found in minor details. Reading Into the Forest will forever change the way you think about a teabag, a scrap of paper, a metronome, an acorn, or a chocolate kiss candy. It will forever change your thinking about dreams and days of the week. Which of these affected you most? What other examples struck your sensibilities?
- Above all, Into the Forest is a story about the boundaries and possibilities of sisterhood. Do you feel a comparable story could have been written about a relationship between a brother and sister or two brothers?
- What kind of childhood do you think Eva’s baby will have? If technology and society were to return to advanced states, how might the child adapt to leaving the forest?
- If your “technologically-based” lifestyle were to evolve into a “nature-based” lifestyle, how do you think you would survive? What would you enjoy? What conveniences would you most miss?
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 it 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.
Today is Christmas Day. I can’t avoid that. We’ve crossed the days off the calendar much too conscientiously to be wrong about the date, however much we might wish we were. Today is Christmas Day, and Christmas Day is one more day to live through, one more day to be endured so that someday soon this time will be behind us.
By next Christmas this will all be over, and my sister and I will have regained the lives we are meant to live. The electricity will be back, the phones will work. Planes will fly above our clearing once again. In town there will be food in the stores and gas at the service stations. Long before next Christmas we will have indulged in everything we now lack and crave–soap and shampoo, toilet paper and milk, fresh fruit and meat. My computer will be running, Eva’s CD player will be working. We’ll be listening to the radio, reading the newspaper, using the Internet. Banks and schools and libraries will have reopened, and Eva and I will have left this house where we now live like shipwrecked orphans. She will be dancing with the corps of the San Francisco Ballet, I’ll have finished my first semester at Harvard, and this wet, dark day the calendar has insisted we call Christmas will be long, long over.
“Merry semi-pagan, slightly literary, and very commercial Christmas,” our father would always announce on Christmas morning, when, long before the midwinter dawn, Eva and I would team up in the hall outside our parents’ bedroom. Jittery with excitement, we would plead with them to get up, to come downstairs, to hurry, while they yawned, insisted on donning bathrobes, on washing their faces and brushing their teeth, even–if our father was being particularly infuriating–on making coffee.
After the clutter and laughter of present-opening came the midday dinner we used to take for granted, phone calls from distant relatives, Handel’s Messiah issuing triumphantly from the CD player. At some point during the afternoon the four of us would take a walk down the dirt road that ends at our clearing. The brisk air and green forest would clear our senses and our palates, and by the time we reached the bridge and were ready to turn back, our father would have inevitably announced, “This is the real Christmas present, by god–peace and quiet and clean air. No neighbors for four miles, and no town for thirty-two. Thank Buddha, Shiva, Jehovah, and the California Department of Forestry we live at the end of the road!”
Later, after night had fallen and the house was dark except for the glow of bulbs on the Christmas tree, Mother would light the candles of the nativity carousel, and we would spend a quiet moment standing together before it, watching the shepherds, wise men, and angels circle around the little holy family.
“Yep,” our father would say, before we all wandered off to nibble at the turkey carcass and cut slivers off the cold plum pudding, “that’s the story. Could be better, could be worse. But at least there’s a baby at the center of it.”
This Christmas there’s none of that.
There are no strings of lights, no Christmas cards. There are no piles of presents, no long-distance phone calls from great-aunts and second cousins, no Christmas carols. There is no turkey, no plum pudding, no stroll to the bridge with our parents, no Messiah. This year Christmas is nothing but another white square on a calendar that is almost out of dates, an extra cup of tea, a few moments of candlelight, and, for each of us, a single gift.
Why do we bother?
Three years ago–when I was fourteen and Eva fifteen–I asked that same question one rainy night a week before Christmas. Father was grumbling over the number of cards he still had to write, and Mother was hidden in her workroom with her growling sewing machine, emerging periodically to take another batch of cookies from the oven and prod me into washing the mixing bowls.
“Nell, I need those dishes done so I can start the pudding before I go to bed,” she said as she closed the oven door on the final sheet of cookies.
“Okay,” I muttered, turning the next page of the book in which I was immersed.
“Tonight, Nell,” she said.
“Why are we doing this?” I demanded, looking up from my book in irritation.
“Because they’re dirty,” she answered, pausing to hand me a warm gingersnap before she swept back to the mysteries of her sewing.
“Not the dishes,” I grumbled.
“Then what, Pumpkin?” asked my father as he licked an envelope and emphatically crossed another name off his list.
“Christmas. All this mess and fuss and we aren’t even really Christians.
“Goddamn right we aren’t,” said our father, laying down his pen, bounding up from the table by the front window, already warming to the energy of his own talk.
“We’re not Christians, we’re capitalists,” he said. “Everybody in this whangdanged country is a capitalist, whether he likes it or not. Everyone in this country is one of the world’s most voracious consumers, using resources at a rate twenty times greater than that of anyone else on this poor earth. And Christmas is our golden opportunity to pick up the pace.”
When he saw I was turning back to my book, he added, “Why are we doing Christmas? Beats me. Tell you what–let’s quit. Throw in the towel. I’ll drive into town tomorrow and return the gifts. We’ll give the cookies to the chickens and write all our friends and relations and explain we’ve given up Christmas for Lent. It’s a shame to waste my vacation, though,” he continued in mock sadness.
“I know.” He snapped his fingers and ducked as though an idea had just struck him on the back of the head. “We’ll replace the beams under the utility room. Forget those dishes, Nell, and find me the jack.”
I glared at him, hating him for half a second for the effortless way he deflected my barbs and bad temper. I huffed into the kitchen, grabbed a handful of cookies, and wandered upstairs to hide in my bedroom with my book.
Later I could hear him in the kitchen, washing the dishes I had ignored and singing at the top of his voice,
“We three kings of oil and tar,
tried to smoke a rubber cigar.
It was loaded, and it exploded,
higher than yonder star.”
The next year even I wouldn’t have dared to question Christmas. Mother was sick, and we all clung to everything that was bright and sweet and warm, as though we thought if we ignored the shadows, they would vanish into the brilliance of hope. But the following spring the cancer took her anyway, and last Christmas my sister and I did our best to bake and wrap and sing in a frantic effort to convince our father–and ourselves–that we could be happy without her.
I thought we were miserable last Christmas. I thought we were miserable because our mother was dead and our father had grown distant and silent. But there were lights on the tree and a turkey in the oven. Eva was Clara in the Redwood Ballet’s performance of The Nutcracker, and I had just received the results of my Scholastic Aptitude Tests, which were good enough–if I did okay on the College Board Achievement Tests–to justify the letter I was composing to the Harvard Admissions Committee.
But this year all that is either gone or in abeyance. This year Eva and I celebrate only because it’s less painful to admit that today is Christmas than to pretend it isn’t.
It’s hard to come up with a present for someone when there is no store in which to buy it, when there is little privacy in which to make it, when everything you own, every bean and grain of rice, each spoon and pen and paper clip, is also owned by the person to whom you want to give a gift.
I gave Eva a pair of her own toe shoes. Two weeks ago I snuck the least battered pair from the closet in her studio and renovated them as best I could, working on them in secret while she was practicing. With the last drops of our mother’s spot remover, I cleaned the tattered satin. I restitched the leather soles with monofilament from our father’s tackle box. I soaked the mashed toe boxes in a mixture of water and wood glue, did my best to reshape them, hid them behind the stove to dry, and then soaked and shaped and dried them again and again. Finally I darned the worn satin at the tips of the toes so that she could get a few more hours of use from them by first dancing on the web of stitches I had sewn.
She gasped when she opened the box and saw them.
“I don’t know if they’re any good,” I said. “They’re probably way too soft. I had no idea what I was doing.”
But while I was still protesting, she flung her arms around me. We clung together for a long second and then we both leapt back. These days our bodies carry our sorrows as though they were bowls brimming with water. We must always be careful; the slightest jolt or unexpected shift and the water will spill and spill and spill.
Eva’s gift to me was this notebook.
“It’s not a computer,” she said, as I lifted it from its wrinkled wrapping paper, recycled from some birthday long ago and not yet sacrificed as fire-starter. “But it’s all blank, every page.”
“Blank paper!” I marveled. “Where on earth did you get it?”
“I found it behind my dresser. It must have fallen back there years ago. I thought you could use it to write about this time. For our grandchildren or something.”
Right now, grandchildren seem less likely than aliens from Mars, and when I first lifted the stained cardboard cover and flipped through these pages, slightly musty, and blank except for their scaffolding of lines, I have to admit I was thinking more about studying for the Achievement Tests than about chronicling this time. And yet it feels good to write. I miss the quick click of my computer keys and the glow of the screen, but tonight this pen feels like Plaza wine in my hand, and already the lines that lead these words down the page seem more like the warp of our mother’s loom and less like the bars I had first imagined them to be. Already I see how much there is to say.