Book Group Guide

The questions that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading and discussion of WOODSBURNER by John Pipkin.


1) In Walden, published ten years after the events described in WOODSBURNER, Thoreau says that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” How are the characters in WOODSBURNER leading lives of quiet desperation before they encounter the fire?

2) How does each character in WOODSBURNER pursue the American Dream? Does every character find it?

3) Why is it so difficult for Oddmund Hus to relate to other people and form friendships? Why does he avoid confessing his love for Emma Woburn, even before she is married?

4) Is the romance between Oddmund and Emma a traditional love story?

5) Is Emma more independent and self-assured than the other characters? Why do you think she agrees to marry Silas Woburn?

6) What contradictions seem to shape Eliot Calvert’s view of the world? Are his troubles the result of external conflicts, or are they the result of his own conflicting desires?

7) At the novel’s end, do you think that Caleb Dowdy finds the answers he is looking for?

8) Do Anezka and Zalenka come to America for the same reasons that attract some of the other characters? How is their view of the New World’s promise similar or different from the other characters?

9) What role does redemption play in the novel? Which characters find redemption and where do they find it?

10) What does Thoreau’s experience with the fire suggest about the abundance of natural resources in the New World?

11) How does Thoreau’s fire serve as a catalyst for change in each character’s life?

12) What do the events in WOODSBURNER suggest about the influence of cause and effect in development of individual lives and of American history?

13) This story takes place in 1844, but how are the challenges faced by these characters relevant today? Are the lessons they learn still applicable in the modern world?

14) What parts of Thoreau’s life, as described in the novel, did you find surprising? Did the novel change your view of Thoreau in any way?

15) A little more than a year after the fire, Thoreau’s builds his famous cabin at Walden Pond so that he can live alone in the woods. Do you think that the fire in 1844 influenced his decision in any way? How?