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Book Review

Historical Saga of England's New Forest Has a Familiar Ring

FOREST, by Edward Rutherfurd, Crown, $26.95, 598 pages

May 11, 2000|CARA MIA DIMASSA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Edward Rutherfurd has a formula that works. Pick a place--preferably one in England--with a rich history. Trace its genesis over a few hundred, if not a thousand years. Even better if you can do so with a few assorted families whose history is as colorful as the place. Add a pinch of controversy, mix, fold in some good maps, a semi-scholarly introduction and presto, you have it. Instant bestseller, a la "Russka," "Sarum" and "London."

"Forest," the latest product of this template, tells the story of England's New Forest, which, despite its name, dates back to the time of William the Conqueror, when it was cordoned off as the king's private hunting grounds. Quiet villages have sprung up inside its boundaries, places like Lymington and Lyndhurst and Beaulieu, but ponies, cattle, donkeys and five species of deer still graze freely in the New Forest amid 93,000 acres of open heaths and grassy lawns, under thick canopies of oak and beech.

While Rutherfurd's first three books focused on the evolution of the village into the city and the country into the nation-state, "Forest" takes on a different kind of subject: a pristine, living organism that regenerates on its own, as one dying oak tree spawns another with its acorns. Although Rutherfurd suggests that things are not always what they seem to be in the forest, the people who live there accept what happens in the area's verdant paddocks of human habitation as preordained, belonging not to them but to the trees and fields. The message is the same, from a deer hunt in 1099 that ends in tragedy for England's King Rufus, through April, 2000, when a television producer arrives in the forest to do a documentary and discovers (aha!) that she is in fact a member of one of the families that lives in the forest, whose history Rutherfurd traces. "To be connected with the Forest," we are told, is "the greatest gift you could hope for."

In between, Rutherfurd hits all the major touchstones of British history. The forest's inhabitants are witnesses to the assassination of King Rufus, the Spanish Armada, the execution of Charles I, the ascensions of Cromwell and Charles II, and the many rises and falls of Prime Minister William Gladstone. One character is burned at the stake as a traitor; another is accused of a crime for which Jane Austen's aunt once stood trial. And just as Pocahontas made a peripheral appearance in "London," the name-dropping in "Forest" is often of the historical variety. A new ship, the Agamemnon, built from forest trees, we are told by the shipwright, " 'has just been placed under a new commander. A captain called Horatio Nelson. . . . Can't say I'd ever heard of him.' . . . Nor had anyone else." Ah, but we have.

This is one of the many rather overt plot devices that Rutherfurd employs to carry us through his histories, and fans of his earlier work may find what once seemed fresh and compelling now tired, less an unexpected delight than a predetermined road marker connecting one chapter to the next. Take the case of a small crucifix, "carved from the wood of a cedar of Lebanon": As the talisman is passed from a monk to his out-of-wedlock child in 1300 and then down through the generations, what once was a meaningful symbol becomes a narrative gimmick. It is referred to in 1587 as a "strange little wooden cross . . . with its curious carving . . . worn on the skin of so many generations now that it was almost black"; in 1794 as "a strange little object, a wooden crucifix, quite black with age . . . [with] some antique carving on it"; in 1851 as a "little blackened crucifix" and then, 150 years later, as "a curious, dark little crucifix." Its wearer calls it an heirloom. "I think it must be extremely old, but I don't know where it comes from." Ah, but we do.

The reader who has not already discovered Rutherfurd's brand of historical fiction will most likely find a certain pleasure in the connectedness of "Forest's" histories and in the narrative tension that Rutherfurd employs. But those who have already worked through the three previous tomes and are looking for something new in "Forest" will have to content themselves with a march of time that trods--albeit quite enjoyably--down a rather well-lit path.

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