"Into the Forest" by Jean Hegland is the best novel I've read in a long time. I predict this cult favorite is soon going to become a national best-seller. If you or your book club is struggling to find something good to read, this is definitely it.
It's a "future history" -- the story of two teen-age girls in Northern California who learn to live on their own when their parents die and society disintegrates. I raced my way to the end of the book, then immediately turned back to page one and began reading it again.
The story is set in the near future in a time when society's myriad problems converge and collapse of their own weight. A war rages overseas while at home the government is in chaos. One by one, services fail. First the mail stops being delivered, then the banks close, then the electricity blinks off for longer and longer periods of time.
At first these are merely inconveniences, failing to unduly alarm Nell, her sister, Eva, or their parents. They live out in the country at the very end of the road, 32 miles from the nearest small town of Redwood. The sisters are home-schooled by their off-beat parents. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say the girls follow their own interests and are encouraged not to go to school, even though their quirky father is the principal of the local elementary school. Their mother, a former ballerina, is a weaver.
At about the time the larger society begins to unravel - the cities burn, rivers flood, an earthquake in California causes a nuclear reactor to meltdown, food supplies dwindle, newspapers stop publishing - the girls' mother is diagnosed with cancer. One of her final acts is to plant a garden of red tulips that bloom in the spring marking the end of the clearing and the beginning of the forest surrounding their home. They can't save her.
Nell, Eva and their father go to town once a week to buy what few supplies remain. Nell cherishes dreams of going to Harvard in the fall when normalcy is restored, when the electricity is turned back on, when she can be reunited with her boyfriend in town. She spends hours each day reading her way through the encyclopedia. Eva deals with her increasingly circumscribed world by retreating into dance. She spends hours and hours practicing ballet in her little studio.
Gas supplies dry up. Schools close. The three begin to hoard food, can fruits and vegetables, cut quantities of timber for firewood, and save each sliver of soap. Finally, they are entirely cut off from the rest of the increasingly chaotic world. But still they wait and hope for life to return to the way it used to be.
One day Nell's father is in the forest trimming trees for firewood. There's a terrible accident and he is fatally injured. The girls are left completely on their own.
Slowly, over a period of months, Nell and Eva begin to realize that life as they once knew it will never be the same. They can't count on anyone but themselves. They have no government, no parents, no boyfriends - and, in fact, they are increasingly in danger . Their food supplies are going fast. They're down to their last few matches, their last few tea bags. A feeling of danger grows and grows. Something evil is out there waiting to attack.
But the gradual transformation that takes place in these young women is totally believable. Nell has to give up her dream of going to Harvard just as Eva has to stop dancing. They have to meet the physical challenges of a new world if they want to survive and they have to do it together.
Author Jean Hegland does a superb job of making this story completely, terrifyingly believable and beautiful at the same time. It's a hopeful story because the girls do not give up -- although more than once suicide seems like a seductive alternative. Their relationship, stressed and cracked, survives and grows. They meet the challenge.
Congratulations go to a small feminist press, Calyx Books of Corvallis, Ore., for publishing this wonderful book by first-time novelist Hegland, and congratulations, too, are due the small independent bookstores that have been hand-selling it. Bantam Books has since bought the title and will release the novel in hardcover this September.
However, a paperback edition will be available by mail from Calyx until mid-April when Bantam's sales black-out begins. So those of you who can't wait to read a wonderful book ($14) should phone Calyx at (541) 753-9384 and order a copy - or two.
Jean Hegland is the author of "Into the Forest" published by Calyx Press and to be re-released as hardcover by Bantam Books, September 1997.