Book Review: ‘The Way Through the Woods,’ by Long Litt Woon

By Pamela Miller
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
'The Way Through the Woods: On Mushrooms and Mourning' by Long Litt Woon, translated from the Norwegian by Barbara J. Haveland. (Spiegel & Grau/TNS)

“The Way Through the Woods: On Mushrooms and Mourning” by Long Litt Woon, translated from the Norwegian by Barbara J. Haveland; Spiegel & Grau (291 pages, $26)

When Malaysian-born anthropologist Long Litt Woon’s lodestar, her beloved husband Eiolf Olsen, fell over dead in 2010, she was left shellshocked by sorrow, and largely isolated in her adopted homeland of Norway. “There was nothing but blackness,” she writes. “Grief grinds slowly: it devours all the time it needs.”

Relief from months of aching emptiness came slowly, and from a most unlikely place — Long’s growing interest in mushroom hunting, which soon became a happy obsession. She met new friends happy to wander through the Norwegian woods with her, spellbound by the hunt. As peculiar as that may sound to most people, mushroom hunters will understand immediately the peculiar joy of discovering fungi, especially rare ones, deep in the beautiful and mysterious woods. Like bird watchers and rock hounds, mushroom hunters tend to be intense hobbyists, happiest when the weather is gray and wet and they’re in their grubby glory.

For such folk, “talk of fungi crowds out everything else,” Long writes. “Trivial matters such as religion and politics take a back seat.” She also recognizes the abundance of metaphor in mycology. In nature, mushrooms are instruments of death and regeneration. In human hands, they can be culinary treasures or murder weapons. Perhaps most important of all, to hunt for mushrooms, one must go into a deep, dark forest, and then, one hopes, emerge — the most powerful metaphor of all for the passage through grief.

Long is a poetic writer who melds what at first seem to be the most disparate possible topics into a profound and beautiful memoir, and one that is not at all just for mushroom enthusiasts.