Sometimes, you sense the match between you and a particular book immediately.
That’s what happened with me and Sara Maitland’s book.
I still remember the pang of realization in discovering that it had not yet been published: the long wait for The Perfect Book.
It was worth the wait.
Gossip from the Forest is structured with twelve parts, each of which begins with a black-and-white photograph of a certain forest, followed by an exploration of that forest, with the segment concluding with a retelling of a fairy tale.
But, first, the epigraph.
It includes various definitions of ‘gossip’, the substance of this work.
When we think of ‘gossip’ we think of “idle talk”, “trifling or groundless rumour”.
Sara Maitland observes that trivializing women’s concerns distorts language, for the third meaning has become pervasive in our culture.
She, however, intends a heavier weight on the traditional definitions: “one who has contracted a spiritual relationship with another by acting as a sponsor at a baptism” or a “familiar acquaintance or friend”.
(This immediately pulled me that much closer to the idea of this being The Perfect Book.)
Gossip from the Forest is rooted in several key ideas, in reality and in story.
“At our deep Teutonic roots we are forest people, and our stories and social networks are forest born.”
(I could not choose a favourite forest from these pages; I do not have personal experience of any of them and, yet, many times the author’s descriptions made them seem familiar.)
The Grimm brothers were systematically seeking a Teutonic folk culture, and there were forests everywhere in that landscape.
In fact, “over half the stories (116 out of 210) in the 1857 edition explicitly mention forests as the location of some part of the story, and at least another 26 have very clear forest themes or images.”
That doesn’t mean it’s simple; Sara Maitland suggests that we all walk in the forest with “a double map”.
What does this mean? One map, “a rich, carefully researched but still incomplete map of the history (economic, social and natural) of woodland that spans not just centuries but millennia; and a second map which relocates the forest in our imaginations and was drawn up when we were children from fairy stories and other tales.”
The work itself exhibits musings upon both maps. There are simple and evocative descriptions, like this one of “The Purgatory Wood”:
“On Christmas Eve it was very cold; the snow, which had mainly fallen over a week before, was – untouched by any thaw – still white and fluffy wherever it had not been trodden on; the air was sparkling and crisp and there was no wind.”
Alongside this, there is a social commentary (which added to my personal appreciation of this work).
“For me, and I expect for most women, there is an extra wedge to this fear – most of the people you encounter in wild places are men; the sorts of things that create this sort of fear are strongly connected, for me, with masculinity. Yes, of course there are women who lurk about in the high hills and deep in the woods – indeed, I am one of them – but guns, hard drinking and noisy vehicles have the deep fear of rape as well as robbery attached to them.”
But perhaps the most delightful parts of the work are those rooted in the second map, the retellings (I especially liked the “Rumpelstiltskin” retelling which followed “The New Forest”).
For this reader, Gossip from the Forest still fits my idea of A Perfect Book.
Day 38 of 45:
Some of the reading in this project was very challenging (like Graeme Gibson’s Five Legs) but Sara Maitland’s book was a true pleasure. Definitely a keeper.
Have you added a keeper to your shelves recently?