Why We’re Still Taken With We Took to the Woods

Eighty years after its publication, Louise Dickinson Rich’s best-known work still resonates.

a copy of "We Took to the Woods," by Louise Dickinson Rich on a table
Photo by Tara Rice
By Kate Ver Ploeg
From our December 2022 issue

One Tuesday night in 2020, shortly before the pandemic put a pause on such gatherings, University of Maine at Augusta English professor Lisa Botshon hosted a community reading of Louise Dickinson Rich’s 1942 memoir We Took to the Woods, in honor of the state’s bicentennial. It was January, a time when plenty of Mainers are hunkered down until spring, and she expected only a handful of enthusiasts to make the cold, dark trek to Augusta’s Maine State Library. Instead, the small room was packed with fans clutching their own dog-eared copies, thrilled to share how Rich’s book had changed their lives.

If you’ve heard of We Took to the Woods, then you likely know it as a niche Maine classic, an entertaining account of one woman’s homesteading experience in the Rangeley Lakes wilderness in the years leading up to World War II. But even outside of Maine, the book’s rustic cachet has helped carve it a surprising cultural niche (it lends its name, for example, to a line of woodsy candles currently available from chi-chi catalog retailer Gorsuch, purveyor of chic antler goblets and $6,000 coyote-fur throws). Upon publication, We Took to the Woods was a standout entry in a trendy genre of backwoods memoirs. But unlike many of them, its cheerful, wryly observant narrator remains inspiring company even after 80 years.

Part nature writing and part domestic reflection, We Took to the Woods is structured as a series of essays responding to the most common questions people purportedly asked Rich about her remote life: Do You Ever Get Bored?, Isn’t Housekeeping Difficult?, But How Do You Make a Living?, and so on. She lived with her partner, Ralph Rich (it’s unclear whether they ever legally married), at a cottage compound they called Forest Lodge, on Oxford County’s Rapid River, with nothing but trees “for so many miles that sometimes it scares me to think about it.” Access was by lake, and the only road, a portage route, didn’t connect to civilization — or, as Rich calls it, “the Outside.” Their only neighbors were a family two miles away, a couple who ran a fishing camp on nearby Lower Richardson Lake, and seasonal logging-camp crews. Their summer house and winter cabin were unplumbed and unelectrified.

Rich is a deft narrator, detailing just enough hardship to keep up the tension and liberally dosing her anecdotes with witty observations and self-deprecating humor. She explains the finer points of using a two-man crosscut saw (and that she’s better at it than Ralph) and stocking a backcountry larder. She offers recipes for “desperation dishes” made from pantry dregs like salmon skin. She introduces Rollo, the pet baby skunk, and Kyak the “art dog,” a husky good for little except looking rustic and noble. And she nonchalantly flouts the conventions of mid-century middle-class housewifery, acknowledging that she doesn’t own a dress and prefers fishing to cleaning, that she leaves the baby at home with a friend while she does things like bushwhacking through a hurricane blowdown just to prove she can.

Rich nonchalantly flouts the conventions of mid-century middle-class housewifery.

Rich was a canny navigator of reader expectations and genre norms, explains Botshon, who’s working on a book about mid-century Maine women rusticators. “She knows how to reel in an audience,” Botshon says. “It’s not fun to live the way she lived, particularly in the winter. She makes it sound like a party, and we know it was not.”

Rich grew up in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, where her parents ran a weekly newspaper. Part of the “genteel poor,” as biographer Alice Arlen writes, the Riches hopped among unmodernized Victorian rentals, and Rich grew up hauling firewood, raising chickens, and toting home so many outdoor curiosities that her mother sewed pockets into her dresses, an unusual accessory for girls. At Bridgewater Normal School, she edited the school yearbook, canoed before breakfast, and often arrived late to class. She was also voted most popular. Although Arlen quotes a friend saying she was kicked out a year early for smoking, Rich nonetheless taught English in schools around New England. She also traveled in Europe and married and divorced a Vermont bond salesman (a friend labeled him “a playboy”). Then, in 1933, she set out with her sister and six others on a canoe expedition on Maine’s Rangeley Lakes.

Hauling their canoes down the Carry Road between Umbagog and Lower Richardson lakes, the expedition met a man chopping wood outside the only cottage on the five-mile road. Ralph Rich — recently disillusioned with life as an engineer in Chicago — had arrived just that morning and planned to stay for the rest of his life. He invited the group to lunch, and they ended up spending the night. After three months of letters and a few Boston rendezvouses, Rich moved up to Forest Lodge.

Published in December 1942, We Took to the Woods was an instant bestseller. It was serialized in The Atlantic, and Life magazine ran a photo feature of the Riches at Forest Lodge. A special, pocket-size Armed Services edition was sent to soldiers at the front. The Book-of-the-Month Club selected it as a monthly pick — the mid-century equivalent of being anointed by Oprah’s Book Club — and ordered more than a quarter-million copies. When Rich started writing in the 1930s, there were only about 500 bookstores in the U.S., mostly in large cities. The Book-of-the-Month Club mailed out books by the hundreds of thousands, mostly to readers outside of urban centers.

Rich’s typewriter and preserved library at Forest Lodge, photographed in 2011, when the property was a sporting camp. Photo by Beverkd, Creative Commons.

In the middle 20th century, readers all over the country were eating up stories of middle-class back-to-the-landers — what East Tennessee State University professor Fred Waage, in a paper on the subject, calls “rustication narratives.” Popular books of the time include Kathrene Pinkerton’s off-grid-in-Ontario chronicle Wilderness Wife, published in 1939; Theodora Stanwell-Fletcher’s British Columbia diary Driftwood Valley, in 1946; and Betty MacDonald’s chicken-farming caper, The Egg and I, in 1945. Many were based in Maine, like Helen Hamlin’s 1945 Allagash memoir Nine Mile Bridge and The Little Locksmith, Katharine Butler Hathaway’s 1942 account of her move to Castine, also serialized in The Atlantic.

Waage credits nostalgia for the fading frontier and a weariness of overseas war news for the groundswell of interest in rustication narratives. For readers on the homefront, such books likely resonated with, and distracted from, the experience of wartime austerity. Written primarily by and for women — specifically middle-class white women — rustication narratives filled a gap between turn-of-the-century female nature writers, like Mary Austin, and Rachel Carson’s emergence as a best-selling author in the 1950s, according to retired University of Kentucky professor Randall Roorda, author of a paper on the “wilderness wife” subgenre. “For women between the wars seeking models for participation in nature,” Roorda writes, “wilderness wives were about the only game in (or out of) town.”

Given its focus on rustic domesticity, its surface similarity to other “wilderness wife” tales, and the Book-of-the-Month Club endorsement, critics might have written off We Took to the Woods as the mid-century equivalent of chick lit. Then as now, that kind of mainstream popularity — especially with rural, middle-class women — can sour a book’s reputation among the literary elite. But We Took to the Woods charmed critics and scholars. The book “smashed a literary convention . . . the how-we-found-happiness-in-the-country school of writing,” declared Harvard dean and English professor Kenneth Murdock, in a review for New England Quarterly, decreeing it “deservedly on the best-sellers’ list.” In the New York Times, one self-proclaimed “reviewer inclined to be bored by a plethora of ‘how-we-moved-to-the-country’ chronicles” wrote, “It is uncommonly good reading even for those who pick it up without any special interest in its subject.”

Rich bought a washing machine and a lake cottage with the book’s proceeds. Whether her work was perceived as literary may not have troubled her, Roorda points out, as writers in genres snubbed by critics are often “laughing all the way to the bank — and so was Rich, on the way to pay property taxes and buy canned goods.” More importantly, she parlayed her first book’s success into a prolific career. Before her death, in 1991, she wrote some two dozen books and countless stories and articles, drawing on the same funny, poignant, woodsy storytelling style she established in We Took to the Woods.

Readers all over the country were eating up stories of middle-class back-to-the-landers.

But what sets the book apart from many of its forgotten contemporaries is the down-home charm and lyric grace of Rich’s writing. In her spare, evocative descriptions of natural beauty, she can rival the best nature writers. Introducing the Rangeley Lakes, she writes:

I wish I could make you see them — long, lovely, lonely stretches of water, shut in by dark hills. The trees come down to the shore, the black growth of fir and pine and spruce streaked with the lighter green of maple and birch. There is nothing at all on the hills but forest, and nobody lives there but deer and bear and wildcats. The people keep close to the lakes, building their dwellings in narrow clearings they have made by pushing trees a little way back from the water.

In her depiction of the Maine Guide, she’s wickedly funny.

[His uniform] consists of a wool shirt, preferably plaid, nicely faded to soft, warm tones . . . a battered felt hat, with a collection of salmon flies stuck in the band, and he must wear it with an air. . . . A few livid scars are a great asset. . . . Maybe he cut his hand peeling potatoes. It sounds much better to say a beaver bit him. Maybe he fell downstairs and gashed his forehead. When asked — and he’ll be asked all right — he can tell all about his big fight with the lynx.

Rich’s writing is never didactic, laboriously detailed, or evangelical. We Took to the Woods is neither a how-to handbook nor a confessional. While she’s quick to find humor in hardship and can make searching for lost canned goods sound like a treasure hunt, Rich is careful to sift out the tedious and mundane. “If can’t-put-it-down is a literary quality,” Roorda says, “then she’s literary as hell.”

Rich herself offered a clear-eyed assessment of her skill. “I’ll never be first-rate,” she writes in We Took to the Woods, but “everything I write, no matter how lousy it turns out to be, is the very best I am capable of at the time. . . . You can’t be even a third-rate writer without taking your work seriously.”

Rich’s very best has inspired generations of readers to seek a simpler life. Scott and Helen Nearing, godparents of Maine’s back-to-the-land movement, owned a first edition. At that community reading in Augusta, attendees young and old told Botshon they’d moved to Maine because of We Took to the Woods. The appeal of a life that blends the intellectual and the physical, of dressing and keeping house and raising children on one’s own terms — in other words, of living like Louise Dickinson Rich — keeps hooking new readers.

“I do think that that storytelling endures,” Botshon says, “that people are still like, ‘Yes, this is why I moved to Maine — and if not the way I want to live my life, this is the way I want to think about it.’”

The first edition of We Took to the Woods was published in 1942. It’s still in print, in an edition from Down East Books, published in 2007.

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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