Shannon Nakai on Janice Obuchowski’s short story collection The Woods

The woods have often served as the storyteller’s theater of magical encounters and warnings. Breadcrumbs, lost trekkers, magic brooks, foreboding creatures—the trappings of the somewhat mystical aura that an uninterrupted primal space lends now hedges a 21st-century rural academic community. Juxtaposing folkloric history against a contemporary college town, Janice Obuchowski’s short story collection The Woods taps into the strange dichotomy of the bookish and the bucolic, as well as what used to be versus what is now. Her characters range from displaced New Yorkers and disillusioned painters and poets to loggers, hunters, retired professors, teenagers, widows, feuding brothers, frustrated adjuncts, mourning parents, all situated within a pastoral setting tinged by a sense of terror. In some stories, like “Monsters,” the danger is literal, fantastical; whereas others speak to a pervading fear of failure or isolation. Rife with psalmic imagery celebrating dappled light, New England sunsets, birdsong, and maple sugar houses, the stories are centered on the balance of grief surrounded by untempered beauty, rootlessness in one of the oldest settlements in the country. With storybook titles like “The Forest Tavern” and “Potions,” The Woods offers not so much sylvan ghost stories as an unsettling disquiet, à la Shirley Jackson, exploring the interiority of loneliness, hope, imposter syndrome, jealousy, rage, grief, and COVID-driven panic. Obuchowski gracefully attaches to each story the subject of loss and mourning as her characters must irrevocably surrender something precious to the continuous toll of change, of which until the end only the very woods itself remains seemingly impermeable.

In the opening short story, “The Cat,” the narrator remarks:

When I first arrived, for a visiting professorship, a colleague explained that if in town is New York, then outside town—where I live—is Brooklyn. We laughed at this. Brooklyn, if Brooklyn were essentially the woods with a modicum of the suburban, if Brooklyn were populated by sheep farmers and art historians, if it were bordered by woods and, to the east, mountains.

Where New York intellect and New England farms collide, characters set each other’s Christmas trees on fire, sneak out to smoke joints, engage in Prohibition-era brawls, take lonely walks, search for beasts, or spy on illegal loggers. They amuse themselves waxing poetic on the meaning of the woods: many regard the return to nature as necessary for intellectual growth and discovery. “Mountain Shade” protagonist Hannah quips that “sometimes, to lead a life of the mind, you had to live somewhere without skyscrapers or taxis or takeout.” In this sense, the woods offer a shedding of the extraneous, something akin to Walden-esque enlightenment: “In the woods, she was part of something larger and, in that sense, she became less corporeal, less bound by her own particular history.” Hannah aligns herself with the world she inhabits: it’s her mountain, which “offered up another existence—some space rough and strange and indifferent to longing,” thus contextualizing her problems, her sufferings, in the ancient scheme of things. Other characters struggle to endure days with their daily miseries, but for Hannah the woods is a ready escape, a haunting which she readily welcomes instead of the haunting of her recent widowhood.

Returning to the first story, “The Cat ” gorgeously renders the precarious situation of solitude with a young adjunct professor whose fixed teaching appointments and constant moves across the country thwart her ability to make deep connections with others or to finish writing her novel. Craving the stability of tenure, publication, and family, she instead faces the unceremonious arrival of a feral cat who refuses to leave. Obuchowski sets the stage with an ominous woods, spooky local folklore, and now a mysterious Poe-like feline who ruptures the narrator’s routine, making room for a new one. Indeed, this unannounced friendship samples but ultimately resists the macabre that fringes each story. The spooky or supernatural signposts in Obuchowski’s stories allude to something more adjacent to the deep-seated fears of the heart. Getting lost in the curiously shifting terrain of the woods parallels a widow’s internal loss. Incanting spells in a cauldron with a daughter signifies a primal reclamation of agency for a mother whose husband is about to leave her. Frightening blinking eyes and the disappearance of loved ones in the night manifest a young brother and sister’s family splitting in divorce. Hearing ghost stories and feeding a mysterious cat is less unsettling for an untenured professor than is the reality of being alone. Pining for elusive stability, she is made to feel more vulnerable not only as a single woman, but as a lonely one.

A character who appears in two stories, Cappie, capstones the stories’ collective theme of past versus present. Cappie embodies old-school Vermont in which tenure and publication were more accessible for aspiring academics, like her husband, whose dementia portends a similar erasure of such opportunities. She is an interesting character: Cappie bypasses a Cornell acceptance and a promising career in order to wed early and raise a child. It’s a trajectory she recognizes has long been abandoned by the current generation of hungry youth graduating from college with plans for vocations, not vows. And yet, Cappie still negotiates a way to get everything she wants, a promise her husband offers to a fresh disillusioned adjunct (a recurring archetype in many of the stories) whose hope for getting everything seems far less likely.

Such losses are grieved: for lost children or careers, the end of relationships or dreams. The setting is uniquely Vermont—old churches, old taverns, rustic mountains, and cabins—yet the situations are ubiquitously accessible. The woods is a synecdoche of a far-reaching world of we well acquainted with the grueling work-life of higher education, creators struggling to reconcile their artistic identities with a lack of production, families struggling at the fray, communities still smarting from the confines of 2020. Obuchowski’s The Woods offers both us and characters the landscape to negotiate past and present, surviving and thriving, an invitation to an expanse larger than ourselves. As one narrator muses:

Part of me wishes I could endlessly watch this river, could breathe in the quiet of the surrounding woods, which seems to offer its own watchful stance. The beauty here is dense, disordered, unruly. I almost find it claustrophobic—an encroaching pressure, a constant assertion of some other presence. There’s something too in this constant mix of the highfalutin and the feral: it invites thought of the spectral. All experience feels as if on the cusp of some other experience.

The Woods, by Janice Obuchowski. Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, November 2022. 248 pages. $18.50, paper.

Shannon Nakai is a poet and reviewer whose work appears in The Cincinnati Review, Los Angeles Review Image, Cream City Review, Atlanta Review, PANK, Cimarron Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. A contributing editor to The Cortland Review, a Fulbright Scholar, and Pushcart-Prize nominee, she works for International Rescue Committee empowering migrants and refugees and plays music with her husband and two lively kids.

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