Burlington County Times, March 4, 2002

I love the Pine Barrens. One of the first books I read after moving to South Jersey was John McPhee’s eponymous book about the region. Originally written as a series of essays for the New Yorker Magazine, the book was first published in 1968, a decade before the creation of the Pinelands Commission. McPhee describes a way of life which he believed was doomed by the plans of the day to build a huge airport and surrounding city, which would help forge New York and Philadelphia into one continuous metropolis. Reading his book – and rereading it, which I have done several times in the past 20 years since I first discovered it – makes me realize just how much has been preserved. Despite all the development that has gone on in the Pinelands, there could have been much more. And the Pinelands have retained much of the magic and mystery and majesty described by McPhee.

That’s why I find it surprising that there is so little fiction using the Pinelands as a background. There’s a whole genre of Southern fiction – think Flannery O’Connor, think Faulkner, think Gone with the Wind – and there are even Southern mysteries. But there’s no genre of Pinelands fiction, despite the area being every bit as picturesque – and picaresque – as the South.

There’s quite a bit of nonfiction about the Pinelands, books about its ecology and its preservation, about canoeing its streams and hiking its sand paths, about its “forgotten” and “lost” towns, about identifying its plant and animal life; about how to garden there and cook what you harvest. And there are collections of tall tales and legends, dealing mainly with the Jersey Devil. But there are only three adult fiction books still in print that I could find on Pinelands: A Novel, by Robert Bateman; The Barrens: A Novel of Suspense, by Joyce Carol Oates, writing as Rosamund Smith; and Cranberry Queen, by Kathleen DeMarco. Amazon also lists three children’s books, two of them out of print, a collection of short stories written by Bateman, an historical romance novel, and two other out-of-print books that are not described.

That’s a rather slim selection for a region that comprises 1.1 million acres, 22% of the State of New Jersey, and is the largest tract of open space in the mid-Atlantic states.

Only Bateman and DeMarco really use the Pinelands as a “character” in their books. Oates, who uses the pseudonym Rosamund Smith for her psychological thrillers, could have set her story in any remote, rural area. In fact, the main action takes place in Central Jersey, and is marred by some factual errors. As far as I know, Burlington City is a lot further than 20 miles from Atlantic City, and she sets her fictional town of Weymouth in Central Jersey, even though there’s a town by the same name in South Jersey.

DeMarco, whose book has been optioned as a movie, grew up in Hammonton and her love of the Pinelands comes through on every page. She’s also a shrewd marketer – I bought my autographed copy from her at the Cranberry Festival in Chatsworth.

Bateman’s take on the Pinelands and its inhabitants is more quirky than DeMarco’s, although DeMarco’s characters are far from bland. But while DeMarco sees the Pineys (a word of praise not derision) as multifaceted people living in the modern world albeit in a remote area, Bateman sees them in a more stereotypical way. His Pineys are primitive, simple folk who shun the conveniences as well as the problems of urban or even suburban life. I am curious now to read his short fiction and see how he depicts Pineys.

I suspect that the lack of fiction about the area stems from two sources: one is the low esteem in which New Jersey as a whole and South Jersey in particular is held by those who live in the publishing center of New York. Basically, we’re just an area to pass through on the way to Philadelphia or Washington. I’m sure there are very few if any editors who have suggested to their stable of writers that they use the Pinelands as a setting for a story.

The other reason is the unfamiliarity of many, including New Jersey residents, with the area. The main character in DeMarco’s book remarks that she grew up in Princeton but knew nothing of the Pinelands beyond it’s being an area between Central Jersey and the Shore. Some of the volunteer book reviewers on make similar comments.

In a way, I’m glad the area’s unknown. The fewer sightseers, the easier it is to spend free time just aimlessly exploring the Pinelands. But let’s hope that this unfamiliarity doesn’t breed contempt. It’s a wonderful area, and deserves a lot more respect – and fictional attention – than it gets.


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