We Went to the Woods by Caite Dolan-Leach
Published by Random House
Publication date: July 2, 2019
Genres: Fiction, Literary, New Adult
Fresh out of college, Mackenzie signs up to be on a millennial-only competition reality TV show. It goes very wrong, she makes a big mistake, and is duly excoriated everywhere. When she meets a tight-knit group of four friends who are as disillusioned with the world as she is, they begin fantasizing what it would be like to leave society behind and create simpler lives for themselves. One of them, Louisa, has family land in upstate New York and the five of them decide to act on their dream. This is the idealistic beginning to Caite Dolan-Leach’s new novel, We Went to the Woods.
Mack, Chloe, Beau, Jack, and Louisa find the Homestead (as they choose to call it) to be as ruggedly primitive as they hoped. Set on 100 acres of woods and fallow fields, it also has one main cabin with a kitchen, living and dining room, and a root cellar. Nearby are 5 small cabins that will be their living quarters and something that could be used as a barn. There’s no electricity, no indoor plumbing, and the only source of heat is wood burning stoves. The nearest town is 12 miles away.
By the time they’re fully ensconced in life at the Homestead, Dolan-Leach has begun to expose some of their motivations for being there. For Beau and Louisa, it’s not just a desire to simplify their lives, they want to change the world. They’re activists. Chloe and Jack are more focused on the experience itself, rather than taking action for their beliefs. Mack is the wild card—an interesting position because she is also the narrator, so her reliability is always in question. For her, the Homestead is mostly about escaping her past and trying to figure out her future.
Over the course of a year, We Went to the Woods follows the five as they navigate the challenges of living off the land. The novel’s pace is a gentle one, echoing life without electricity and electronics. There are instances of social issues around big agriculture and relationship dynamics, but they’re not enough to jump start tension in the novel. This was a real difficulty for me as Dolan-Leach’s debut novel, Dead Letters, was one of the most suspenseful novels I’ve read. I knew We Went to the Woods was not going to be another thriller, but there needed to be momentum of some kind and there was not. My take-away? After reading The Ash Family and now this, I’m finished with off-the-grid, collective living books. Sooner or later someone’s agenda takes precedence and things get messy. This happens at the very end of We Went to the Woods, but it’s not enough to change the novel’s drowsy feel.