The Man in the Pines by David Nash

Reviewed by Carole Mertz

Because of its beautiful descriptions offered right from the start, I thought The Man in the Pines would be a fun-to-read historical novel. But the book is more than a historical novel.

Nash invites us into the story by way of an old man inside a cabin as he peers through a distorted glass window. He’s searching for a view of the path that leads down to a lake. It’s a beautiful chapter that depicts the man planting saplings, taking the seeds from a crude, homemade rucksack he carries with him. He talks to a rabbit while going about his labor. The time is 1983; the state is Minnesota.

The next chapter shifts to Maine and the year 1870. It was at that point I noticed that a silhouette of a rabbit precedes the chapter heading, and each subsequent chapter. (Kudos to the publisher for that important touch. It appears, at first, as a charming addition; but proves to be a significant image, as well, and vital to the story.)

A child is delivered to Samantha and Andrew Cunningham as they experience a fearful, life-threatening Maine blizzard. But hearing the cries of a child, Samantha rips the door open against the pulls of the wind. And so, we meet Paul, the abandoned tiny infant who grows into a towering legend. He becomes a lumberjack, and it was not until about page 60 that I recognized the familiar legend, as you will, too.  

You will recall the tale, so artfully told through Nash’s imagination and what must be recognized as careful research, as soon as you envision this giant of a man, as he swings his way through expansive pine forests. As a side note, this story carried me easily to an excerpt of a poem I was reading at the time by J.J. Schoolcraft.* She sings wistfully of the pines, “The pine! The pine! I eager cried, // As first that cherished tree I spied.” But Schoolcraft would have her pines growing again and her lands restored. Oddly enough, that is what Paul himself will desire, as told by Nash. But first, the very pines called out to Paul for cutting and ultimately provided him his major life’s work. 

The chapter on page 38 opens with Nash’s poem, “Moving with the waterways / I whisper to the sky / for I am / the man in the pines.” Campfire tales about Paul begin to proliferate. A simple object, a piece of wood and metal, makes Paul feel complete, as he hacks his way through the forests, felling more trees in a day than any man. His body seems daily to grow taller and taller, as do the tales about him.

Paul had sensed the pull further westward for some time now. He was always keen to listen for stories of bigger trees and untamed wilderness. The trees were magnets calling to the iron surging through his veins. (p. 41)

We soon learn how, nicknamed by his French-Canadian friend, his name Bon Jean, gradually elides into “Bunyan.” But along the St. Croix River, Paul experiences a foreboding:

At twenty-three years old, Paul didn’t altogether mind being a role model…, [to his fellow loggers] but the thought that these forests were drying up made him uneasy, anxious even. An image of a land with nothing but tree stumps flashed before him, and a warm tingling crawled up the back of his neck as a stab of nausea sunk into his belt. He blinked the scene away. Nah! I’ll be logging until I die, and there’ll always be more for me to cut. (pp. 41-42)

Though I may seem to have disregarded spoiler alerts, in actuality I have not. There are many surprises yet disclosed in Nash’s telling of the tale. And you can read the volume for the unfolding of the plot and for the ample satisfactions his syntax and writing style provide, rich with poetry and with metaphors always appropriate to the volume’s subject matter.

A case in point appears on page 54. Paul suffers a deep loss. He builds a wall around himself, as his father had done. The author describes it this way, He recognized the strength required to be an island and tried to embody it. Nash typically mixes the concrete with the abstract. 

I wept through some of the passages in which he describes other particular losses, and I especially appreciated Nash’s sensitivity in his portrayal of Bunyan’s relationship with his beloved friend, Babe. Of special note is the worthy lesson Nash brings to the fore in his final chapters, which I leave for the reader to discover.

A Man in the Pines is a novel to be enjoyed by those who especially treasure the beautiful topography of the Midwest, from its trees to its rivers and lakes, and by those who appreciate a long-lasting American legend, told here with a respectable, contemporary spin.

A native of Minnesota who now resides in Wisconsin, David Nash is a pediatric ophthalmologist and an award-winning singer-songwriter. I welcome future novels from him.

*Included in Joy Harjo’s collection, When the Light of the World was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through (Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry, 2020)

Carole Mertz, poet, essayist, and musician, has reviewed for Arc, Cutbank, Eclectica, League of Canadian Poets, Main St. Rag, Portage Magazine, The Compulsive Reader, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. Her poetry appears frequently in The Ekphrastic Review. She is Book Review Editor at Dreamers Creative Writing and author of the poetry collection, Color and Line (Kelsay Books, 2021). See more of her work at Carole resides with her husband in Parma, Ohio.

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