Greenwood by Michael Christie

Greenwood by Canadian writer Michael Christie speaks and sings with a clear voice that never fails its author. I would have thought that a novel of 501 pages in the galley, especially a story so formally arranged as this one, would be a big word machine that would creak and sputter in its final one hundred pages as the writer tries to close up complex plot lines. I was prepared to be bored and impatient in those last hundred pages. But Michael Christie keeps going, finding new insights, and having his large cast of characters continue to evolve until the final pages. The reader never gets bored with Greenwood because the writer is never done exploring.

The novel’s architecture has the ethos of a palindrome or a species of shape poetry: it’s arrayed in a series of tree rings with the oldest ring in the center of the book. Thus, the reverse chronology of the plot runs in sections from 2038, 2008, 1974, 1934, and 1908, which is the oldest section. After 1908, the time sequence rights itself: 1934, 1974, 2008; and the novel ends where it began, in 2038. There is a diagram of these time-tree rings in the galley. The mirror-patterned time sequences reminded me of a palindrome, and the novel, in its spirit-form, is shaped like a tree, therefore a kind of shape poetry. Think of a paper book as a tree, and a library as a forest. That’s very Greenwood.

The beginning of the story comes in the center of the book, like with tree rings. Harris and Everett are boys thrown from opposing trains in a wreck, their bodies tossed into the same woods. Because the local villagers find them together, they think of them as brothers, even though they can’t be siblings since they were thrown from different trains.

From the children’s incoherent mumblings, the locals choose their most plausible names. No family ever claims either child, so the village arranges for a local widow to care for them. She apparently does it for the money. She won’t allow them in her house, so the boys grow up wild in a shack on her property. She leaves food at the door for them. They’re the “green wood boys” so the surname “Greenwood” sticks. Growing up wild, they brawl with each other all day. But when they finally go to school, they fight back to back and, on their first day, win five fights in the schoolyard. That is one of the best origin stories I have ever heard!

“Greenwood” is also an isolated island off the western coast of Canada. Its tree growth is centuries old and towers high. It’s a sanctuary from “the Withering” a general ecological collapse that has turned the United States into a raging dust storm, with a ruined economy and desperate citizens. Most paper books have been pulped to make dust masks. The remaining paper books are costly heirlooms. For now, Canada is the world’s prime refuge, due to its native tree cover. But there are hints in the story that there is no safe place anywhere.

The hypertrophic plot lines reminded me of postmodern John Barth’s The Sot Weed Factor. The Everett and Harris origin story reminded me of the Mark Twain of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Forests reminded me of Thoreau. (The book cites John Muir.) Canada, east and west, clash with opposing passenger trains as rival east and west coast moguls dispoil the earth and are binary poles of the plot. It’s a rich book, with lots to notice. Greenwood is a Canadian national treasure.