12 Great Books Set in the Forest That We Love

12 Great Books Set in the Forest That We Love

Tuesday, 15 February, 2022

If you believe the legends and fairy-tales — and who are we to doubt them? — anything can happen in the wilds of the woods. Deals are struck. Fates are sealed. People and treasures and dreams are lost and found. And witches just might reign supreme.

The contrast between a forest’s beauty and its legit danger resonates deep within us humans. The canopy of leaves and branches can be like the soaring vaults of a cathedral, presided over by scampering squirrels, soaring birds, and flittering butterflies. But the woods are also a place to hide or disappear, and motives may be as dark as the night that falls fast under the leaves.

Here are 12 books set in the forest that took us there on the page and, honestly, kind of made us hope to get lost in the woods, if just for a little while. There’s something for every type of reader: twisty thrillers, a few fairy-tales for adults, a grand adventure in the forests of Peru, a delightfully eerie ghost story in a Scottish forest — all populated with unforgettable characters being all-too-human in evocative woodland settings. Plus, one stunning nonfiction book that will change the way you think about trees.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast The Forest: Meet a Witch, Climb a Tree.

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Falling From Grace - Ann Eriksson

Falling from Grace
> Ann Eriksson

Meet Faye, an entomologist dedicated to studying the mites that live in the forest canopy of Vancouver Island. She’s prickly, intelligent, driven, and unsentimental. She’s also 3 1/2-feet tall and out of patience with the world’s ignorance about dwarfism and science and a lot of other things she holds dear.

In other hands, this novel could easily have gone wrong, finding clunky life lessons in the story of a little person studying the world’s tiniest arachnids in the tops of the tallest trees on the planet. Instead, we get a nuanced portrait of a sometimes difficult woman whose life purpose is to be among the trees.

Faye is fulfilling that purpose by working and sleeping in the forest. But one day, her peaceful campsite is invaded by a ragtag group of activists protesting a logging corporation. Despite herself, Faye is drawn into the conflict, caught between the logging boss she knows and the activists she does not.

Author Ann Eriksson’s prose is rich with fascinating science. Instead of shying away from the technical details, they’re woven into the narrative to help us understand Faye’s passion for her work. The explanation of why mites are integral to the food chain is surprisingly riveting stuff.

This unusual novel mashes up the elements of a family saga and ecological drama with a whisper of a coming-of-age story. It delivers on its promise of love for trees and character development with page-turning suspense and not a little bit of heartbreak. {more}

I climb trees for a living. My mother, Grace, a woman of great compassion and little tact, claims I climb trees to make myself taller. She likes to relate to anyone who will listen how as a child I climbed anything, my stubby arms and legs wedged crablike between door frames, scuttling up the lattice to the garden, the china cabinet, the drainpipe to the roof. She is mistaken, my intent not to be taller. When my feet leave the ground, I rejoice in the release from gravity. If I could fly, I might, like the marbled murrelet, never touch the earth, setting my feet only on the highest branches of the tallest trees. What I seek most is solitude in the company of trees. Connection with another being. — Ann Eriksson

The Hidden Life of Trees - Peter Wohlleben, Jane Billinghurst (translator)

The Hidden Life of Trees
> Peter Wohlleben

It’s not an overstatement to say that reading this book will change everything you think you know about trees. It’s also no surprise this book has sold about three million copies worldwide: It’s intelligent, engaging, and imbued with empathy.

Author Peter Wohlleben uses his first-hand experience as a forest caretaker to convince us puny humans to see trees as a living, breathing, collaborative community of organisms that help each other — and all of us. He is trying with everything he can — and by translating science into terms the rest of us will understand — to raise the empathy of humans for trees.

He does this, in no small part, by anthropomorphizing the things trees do. In his world, trees have intelligence, memory, and are conscious of their environment.

This is a compelling, fast read that will open up a whole new world of appreciation for the three trillion quiet giants, tender saplings, fruit orchards, fragrant firs, and leafy shade trees with whom we share the planet. Prepare for your next walk in the woods to be an entirely different experience — and maybe hug a tree. {more}

The thing that surprised me most is how social trees are. I stumbled over an old stump one day and saw that it was still living although it was 400 or 500 years old, without any green leaf. Every living being needs nutrition. The only explanation was that it was supported by the neighbor trees via the roots with a sugar solution. As a forester, I learned that trees are competitors that struggle against each other, for light, for space, and there I saw that it’s just vice versa. Trees are very interested in keeping every member of this community alive. — Peter Wohlleben

Burning Bright - Nick Petrie

Burning Bright
> Nick Petrie

When an author like Lee Child says something like this — ‘Lots of characters get compared to my own Jack Reacher, but Peter Ash is the real deal.’ — it’s a good idea to pay attention. For action, suspense, and can’t-turn-the-page-fast-enough momentum, the Peter Ash books definitely rival the Jack Reacher series.

And for compelling characterization, it feels like Peter Ash might just eke out a win over the venerable Reacher.

A former Marine lieutenant and veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Peter wrestles with what he calls ‘white static’ — PTSD that manifests as extreme claustrophobia. Offices, banks, even cozy homes are fraught spaces, so he takes off for an open-ended hike in the wilderness of California’s Mendocino National Forest.

But thanks to dense fog and his inescapable anxiety, his camp-out is not quite the idyll he had planned. Through a series of unexpected and dangerous mishaps, he finds himself teamed up with June, a gun-toting journalist. She’s foiled her own kidnapping but is now hiding out from the bad guys amongst the treetops.

After bickering banter worthy of a screwball comedy, the two realize they’re stuck with each other and team up to sort out what’s going on. Their perilous adventures take them through the redwood forests of northern California and the landscapes around Seattle, Washington. {more}

The rain had stopped sometime in the night, and although the fog was still thick, some quality of the mist had changed. It glowed faintly, green with growth and heady with the oxygen exhaled by giants. He thought maybe the sun had come out, somewhere up there. It turned the forest into something like an ancient cathedral. — Nick Petrie

The Bear and the Nightingale - Katherine Arden

The Bear and the Nightingale
> Katherine Arden

The opening of this novel is very promising for those of us who love fairy-tales and folklore: an old woman sits in a kitchen in the wildwoods of Russia, telling children the story of Morozko, the Winter King.

The first section of the book reads like a (delightful, easier to manage) Russian novel. Much is happening, and characters are introduced at a rapid pace — and in the middle of it all is a woman who might be a witch. She is definitely royalty, and her husband is the lord of an immense forest, which brings us to another primary character in this adventure: the woods.

This fairy-tale forest is vast and dark and deep. It gives and takes away. People get lost there and are never seen again.

And at the edge of the forest, a daughter is born to the maybe-witch. Her name is Vasya, and as she takes her first breaths, her mother, the maybe-witch, dies. As Vasya grows, she realizes she can see things that other people can’t. Odd things happen to her. She befriends a possibly untrustworthy tree nymph. She meets the river king.

The second half of the book takes a dark turn toward horror. There are ghosts and vampires and unhappy spirits in the night. And the forest. Always the forest, which is growing increasingly hostile and threatens to wipe out all the eye can see.

Ultimately hopeful and endlessly engaging — and a great read for a cold night — this is a story that recognizes we can find a bright warm light when circumstances seem to be at their darkest. {more}

There was a time, not long ago

When flowers grew all year

When days were long

And nights star-strewn

And men lived free from fear — Katherine Arden

The True Story of Hansel and Gretel - Louise Murphy

Set in the forests of Poland during the last days of World War II, this is a gripping retelling of the classic fairy tale Hansel and Gretel. It draws insightful, poignant parallels between the dark morality of fairy tales and the brutality of war.

But lest that sound too heavy, you should know this: The story starts in the middle of the action with a white-knuckle motorcycle chase.

A man known as The Mechanic is barreling along a forest road on his motorcycle, his wife on the seat behind him, his two young children strapped into the sidecar. They’re being chased by three Nazis on motorcycles. They’re Jewish, and they’re running for their lives.

When it becomes clear there’s no escape, the children are sent off into the woods with a promise they’ll never again say their real names. From this moment on, they’ll be Hansel and Gretel.

Though the scaffolding of this suspenseful, melancholy story has its roots in the Brothers Grimm, it’s fleshed out with additional characters. There are resistance fighters and Russian soldiers; a witch and her brother (a priest), and of course, the evil Nazis who, in real life, brought fear and death to the forests of Poland.

As WWII stories are prone to be, this adventure tale also includes scenes of brutality; the Nazis embody their cruel reputation. But there are life-affirming moments, too. The devotion that Hansel and Gretel have for each other is the bedrock underlying this entire tale. They quarrel and lose patience with each other, as siblings do, but they never give up on each other, even when it seems all hope is lost. {more}

It is finished. The tale is told truthfully, and truth is no heavier, no more beautiful than lies. Yet there is something that makes me love the truth, and that love made me wander and worry until the truth was given to you, like a gift. For this in the end is what we have. The love of something. Wild ponies. A kiss salted by tears. The scent of raspberry syrup in a bottle. Oranges. Two lost children who come to your house in the dark forest. There is much to love, and that love is what we are left with. When the bombs stop dropping, and the camps fall back to the earth and decay, and we are done killing each other, that is what we must hold. We can never let the world take our memories of love away, and if there are no memories, we must invent love all over again. The wheel turns. Blue above, green below, we wander a long way, but love is what the cup of our soul contains when we leave the world and the flesh. This we will drink forever. I know. I am Magda. I am the witch. — Louise Murphy

Ways to Hide in Winter - Sarah St.Vincent

Ways to Hide in Winter
> Sarah St.Vincent

In this atmospheric novel, two characters from opposite sounds of the world — both vulnerable and in various degrees of danger — turn to each other out of desperation, loneliness, and a recognition of a like soul. Their uneasy alliance plays out in unexpected ways during a blustery winter in the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania.

Kathleen is 26 and newly widowed. She hides away in a tiny convenience store on the edge of a state park, cooking hamburgers and scooping ice cream for the deer hunters and hikers who pass through. But it’s winter now, and the vacationers are long gone. She revels in her personal exile and the repetition of her routine. Until one day, it’s blown open by the arrival of a stranger. What is a young man from Uzbekistan — with flimsy shoes and empty pockets — doing in this isolated, rural place?

Despite her methodical means of cutting herself from most other humans, Kathleen is intrigued by Daniil. The two of them — introverted, secretive, jumpy — develop a complex and tenuous relationship. As the story progresses, Kathleen’s history is revealed, and her alternating bouts of crippling fear and devil-may-care risk-taking begin to make sense. Daniil slowly reveals that he, too, has been keeping devastating secrets that put them both in danger. Can Kathleen protect him? Can she protect herself?

The propulsive plot and remote setting keep the suspense at a tense hum. But Kathleen and Daniil’s backstories transform this thriller into a nuanced examination of violence, rural America, and the quest for redemption in the wake of tragedy. {more}

There were two lakes in the park, Laurel and Fuller, both of which stood where the quarries had once been. When I was a child, bits of blue and green slag from the old iron smelter had still washed up on the sand that had been trucked in. My brother and I would walk along the shore and collect them, along with pebbles and snail shells and shining fragments of charcoal. Laurel was the shallower of the two and was always crowded in summer—small children with their mothers, Boy Scouts, softball teams, fishermen. Laurel had pavilions and grills, fire pits… Fuller was where, when I was sixteen, I would lie on the sand late at night, long after the park had closed, and look up at the stars in their endless, stoic expanse. — Sarah St.Vincent

Dark Pines - Will Dean

Dark Pines
> Will Dean

Tuva Moodyson is a handful and a half. She’s deaf, she’s determined, and she’s a reporter with a curiosity that could be deadly. Trapped at a small newspaper in the equally small Swedish town of Gavrik, she gets herself into big trouble.

It’s elk hunting season and gunfire echoes throughout the spruce forest. But imposing mammals aren’t the only victims; a pair of hunters is found murdered in the woods, and - in a super-Scandi-noir move — their eyes are missing.

While investigating the crime for her story, Tuva finds a link to the ‘Medusa’ killings, a series of decades-old murders that happened in the same forest.

Soon she’s becoming intimate with the unusual folks of Mossen, a cluster of houses — too small to even be a village — in the woods near where the bodies were found. There’s a menacing taxi driver, a suspicious ghostwriter, a hoarder (anti-hunting, vegetarian) who lives in a caravan, the big-fish-small-pond mill boss, and two witchy sisters — Alice and Cornelia — who handcraft trolls adorned with human hair.

Author Will Dean makes the forest a primary character, equal parts menace and majesty — the perfect place for a reporter with the moxie to chase down the devil and face her own demons. {more}

An elk emerges from the overgrown pines, and it is monstrous. Half a ton, maybe more. I stamp the brake, my truck juddering as the winter tires bite into the gravel, and then I nudge my ponytail and switch on my hearing aids… Utgard forest darkens around me, and he stamps his hoof down and breaks a thin veneer of ice covering a pothole. My headlights pick out a splash of dirty water hitting his fur, and then he looks straight at me, and he drops his head, and he charges. — Will Dean

Black River - Will Dean

Black River
> Will Dean

Intrepid reporter Tuva Moodyson has been living in southern Sweden for four months, far away from her dark past in the forests and secrets of northern Gavrik. Then she receives shocking news that shakes her new and tremulous foundation: her best friend Tammy is missing.

Tuva rushes back to the place she definitely doesn’t want to be — at the height of Midsommar celebrations — to help lead the search for her lost friend. But it seems that someone else doesn’t want Tammy to be found; the search effort is routinely, cruelly sabotaged. And thanks to the bright light of the longest day of the year, day and night blend into one long, surreal horror.

While Midsommar revelers celebrate around her — with food and maypoles and aquavit and life — Tuva is trapped in her feelings of fear and regret as Tammy’s whereabouts remain unknown. As she gets closer to the truth of her friend’s disappearance, she also circles closer to what could become her demise. {more}

Utgard forest is overwhelming. Bigger than ever. Dark and summer-full; undergrowth exploding outward and upward, brambles and nettles creeping out from the forest fringes. I drive for fifteen minutes, and Utgard forest is the constant shade on the right-hand side of the road. I pass the narrow entrance to Mossen village — nothing good’s ever come out of that place — and I drive on. — Will Dean

Pine - Francine Toon

Pine
> Francine Toon

Like all the best ghost stories, this fleet-footed, atmospheric tale is mostly melancholy, occasionally bleak, and sometimes triumphant. Set in the Scottish Highlands on Halloween, it explores the ways that people can be haunted by guilt, by fear, by loss — and, maybe, by ghosts.

Our preteen heroine Lauren and her father live in a small village surrounded by pine forest. Lauren’s mother is gone, and the little girl’s life is a tough slog. She’s bullied at school, and her dad has never gotten over her mother’s disappearance. Routinely left in the unofficial care of neighbors for companionship and occasional dinners, she’s almost a ghost in her own life.

On Halloween night, on the drive home after trick-or-treating, Lauren and her father see a mysterious woman in white at the side of the road. Her father picks up the waif-like woman and takes her home: There is something unearthly about the fabric of this woman’s dressing gown and the colour of her hair. Unearthly and yet familiar. In the morning, the woman is gone — and a string of mysterious events follows, including the disappearance of a local girl and repeated sightings of the woman in white.

The tension and suspense remain at a simmer of dread throughout. When the ending arrives, it’s both very satisfying and a bit sad, because our time in this richly-imagined world has come to an end. {more}

Sometimes another feeling creeps up her spine like fingers. She has seen the looks children give her at school, the way some keep a wide berth. She hears about birthday parties the day after they happen. She can feel the rumours invisible around her in the playground, like text messages travelling from one kid to another. Once someone asked if it was true that her house was haunted. — Francine Toon

Celine - Peter Heller

Celine
> Peter Heller

Our heroine Celine defies every expectation of the private eye, and we dare you to not be entirely infatuated by her. Elegant, aristocratic, and a woman of a certain age, she’s also an outsider artist, wildly empathetic, skilled in surprising ways, and ridiculously good at her job of reuniting damaged families.

But she’s not the only remarkable woman in this story.

There’s also Gabriela, a young woman with a Past and Baggage, who needs Celine’s help. Decades ago — after a gut-wrenching family tragedy — her father went missing under suspicious circumstances on the Wyoming-Montana border. To move on with her life, Gabriela needs answers, and she pleads with Celine to take on the cold case. Soon the PI is on an epic (and dangerous) road trip west to unravel the mystery and bring her client peace.

This is a page-turner with taut suspense and action-packed set pieces that demonstrate Celine is a force as powerful as the mountain wind. It’s also a non-judgmental look at people who choose to live a different kind of life, and it grapples with the often painful sacrifices that must be made for freedom and family. {more}

The leaves stuck to the windshield and they drove with the windows open and the smell of sage and grass pouring in with the cold. They saw a grizzly bear running flat out across a meadow. He was huge and humped and he more flowed than ran, and the long sun rippled over his sleek fur like water and changed his colors. He stopped at the edge of the spruce and began digging…. They drove over a wooded rise and when they came out of the spruce they could see a hundred bison grazing in grass in a bow of the river and white trumpeter swans on the slate-blue water. — Peter Heller

The Bedlam Stacks - Natasha Pulley

The Bedlam Stacks
> Natasha Pulley

This novel takes you high into the Andes mountains of 19th-century Peru and deep into the heart of native lore. It begins as an action story, but then unexpected magic slowly creeps in, and bam! hits you in the solar plexus with romance, adventure, surprising revelations, and big feels.

When we meet our hero Merrick Tremayne, it’s 1859, and he’s at his family’s dilapidated estate in Cornwall, England, ostensibly recovering from a severe leg injury, but mostly hiding from the world and licking his wounds. A former smuggler with the East India Company, he’s mourning the loss of his career, his physical prowess, and a much-anticipated journey to Peru.

Then the India Office comes calling again, insisting that he continue with his mission to Peru to filch the bark of the cinchona tree, crucial for the treatment of malaria. It’s a terrible idea — he can barely walk, and his confidence is at an all-time low — but it’s also a terribly attractive idea. Soon, he’s on his way to South America, armed with a map, reassuring promises, and the help of his old friend, an able-bodied explorer.

Once they arrive at their destination — a village surrounded by forests in the Andes — they meet a band of locals that will change everything Merrick understands about himself and his family. {more}

‘So — to be clear,’ I said at last, because they had both been waiting for me to speak in a loaded silence that sounded a lot like they wanted to make sure I definitely could speak still. ‘We are being sent to steal a plant whose exact location nobody knows, in territory now defended by quinine barons under the protection of the government, and inhabited by tribal Indians who also hate foreigners and have killed everyone who’s got close in the last ten years.’ — Natasha Pulley

The Box in the Woods - Maureen Johnson

The Box in the Woods
> Maureen Johnson

If the names Freddie, Jason, and Michael conjure summers past and cause tingles up the back of your neck, this (kinder, gentler) mystery-thriller is for you. A sort of homage to classic slasher films, with a touch of Poirot, it’s a whole lot of jump-scare fun.

Imagine Jessica Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote, but instead of a somewhat nosy lady of a certain age, she’s an overly curious teenage girl with cropped hair and an all-black wardrobe. That’s Stevie Bell, the heroine of this story (and the amateur sleuth of the Truly Devious series, although this one is a stand-alone).

Stevie has been relegated to a tedious summer, working at the grocery store deli counter in her hometown and feeling unmoored. But then an intriguing invitation arrives. Camp Wonder Falls – the site of a notorious and notoriously unsolved 1978 multiple murder — has new owners with a mission: They want Stevie to dig into the cold case for a true-crime documentary and podcast.

With her best friends/sidekicks in tow, Stevie heads to the woods to solve the decades-old tragedy while bravely facing the challenges of snakes, ticks, her own anxiety, and oh! a new murder. {more}

On this side of the camp, the lake was about a hundred feet across, surrounded by a narrow edge of beach, with some swampy, reedy areas (snaketown) cutting into it. There was a swimming pool, tennis court, fields, and a large assembly area with a firepit in the middle. Carson showed them all around, pointing out the racks of canoes, the rows of communal bikes, and a yoga and dance pavilion. They worked their way around to the tidy wooden bunkhouses that butted up against the woods. They were built on raised concrete platforms, probably to protect them if the lake flooded its banks. Stevie noticed that while all the windows had screens in them, they also had metal latticework. She suspected this was installed in the wake of the murders, to ensure no one could get in from the outside. — Maureen Johnson

Top image courtesy of Jan Huber/Unsplash.

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Oh! A walk in the woods! There are berries to eat and trees to climb. You could catch a glimpse of a fuzzy rabbit or a majestic stag. You might also run afoul of a witch, be chased by a bear, or get lost forever.
Yes, you could forage for nuts and berries in the woods. Or, instead, you might whip up a batch of this homemade granola and take that on your next hike. It's sweet, salty, crunchy, chewy, and eminently shareable.
You don't have to be tucked inside a fairy tale house in a dark forest to enjoy this hearty, garlicky mushroom soup — but it's fun to pretend. Let the snow fall. Let the ghosts romp. Just sip your soup and enjoy.
In this short but powerful poem from 1910, Rudyard Kipling takes us on a walk through a forest populated with badgers and otters and doves. There is misty solitude and cool night air. Go, take a walk in the woods.
In this free verse poem from 1914, Robert Frost takes us into the birch forests of New England — to marvel at the way the branches bend but don't break, to appreciate climbing and swinging free above the Earth.

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