Jean Hegland

Into the Forest

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Into the Forest Summary

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Into the Forest (1996) is a dystopian novel by American author Jean Hegland. Set in the woods of Northern California in the not-too-distant future, it is the tale of two teenage sisters, Nell and Eva, who must learn to survive on their own after the collapse of civilization. Told through Nell’s journal entries, the girls’ struggle unfolds as Nell recalls memories from a time before—a time when things like water and food and basic technology were not luxuries—and grapples with the possible future ahead…and all the hope and terror contained therein.

The book opens with 17-year-old Nell picking up pen and paper after not writing anything for many months. It is Christmas Day, prompting Nell to remember Christmases past, when her parents were alive and she and Eva would excitedly tear open their presents, followed by a family dinner, and then a gathering around a candlelit nativity scene. But this year, Christmas—and every other day—are markedly different. Not a day to celebrate, but a day to endure, just another “white square on a calendar that is almost out of dates.”

As Nell writes, she reveals her character: She is sensible, smart, and cautious. Eva, though older, is the more romantic of the two, a sensitive, sophisticated ballet dancer with a natural desire to live fully in the present and take advantage of all the beauty in the here and now.

The girls live on their own in a cabin in a forest 32 miles from the city of Redwood, California. Their mother died the previous year of cancer, and their father died more recently in an accident while chopping down trees for firewood.

Nell and Eva start out with the hope that things will, somehow, someday, return to normal. They are not quite sure how this will happen; they only have faith that it will. This becomes the central driving force of their lives, their reason to go on in such difficult and uncertain conditions. As they carefully ration their food supply and try to meet the basic demands of day-to-day life without electricity, internet access, resources, or community, they also continue their pursuit of the interests and plans they held in their life during the time “before.” Nell studies each day in preparation for the tests that will help her gain admission to Harvard. Nell diligently rehearses her ballet routines.

One day, their friend Eli pays a surprise visit, and the severity of the situation they—and all of humanity—face comes into sharper focus. Eli, on whom Nell has long had a crush, informs them that Redwood is virtually a ghost town, with most people having fled or died from disease. He shares with them the rumor that life in the East, specifically Boston, remains unchanged from the time before, a place where normalcy remains. Eli and a group of other townspeople plan a cross-country expedition to Boston, and he invites the girls. Nell seriously debates joining the group, but Eva wants to stay, so Nell ultimately chooses to remain in the woods with her sister.

Not long after, the girls’ circumstances grow even darker. A stranger attacks and rapes Eva. With Nell’s support and care, Eva heals from the ordeal but soon learns she is pregnant. She decides to keep the baby, choosing to see the child as a sign of hope in a desperate situation and proof that good things can come even from life’s traumas and hardships.

As the fetus grows in her belly, Eva recognizes that it will be its own person someday, which grants it certain unalienable rights. As such, it deserves a chance in the world. Coming to terms with this, Eva also realizes that the world her child will enter is not the world she and her sister once knew and loved. And so, they best prepare themselves and the coming child for life in this new reality and stop wishing the world would return to what it once was.

Nell and Eva commit themselves to building a sustainable existence, both for the child and for themselves. They plant crops, hunt animals, gather plants from the woods, and preserve food, much in the same way the local indigenous people did in centuries past.

When Eva has a baby boy, the girls name him Robert, after their late father.

Shortly after Robert’s birth, the girls find a man’s footprints in the mud around the perimeter of their cabin. Someone has been watching them, essentially lying in wait. There’s no telling who it is, what he might want, or what he might do.

Feeling they have no other choice, the girls go through the house, taking only the essentials they can carry with them. Once outside, they burn the house to the ground. Eva, Nell, and Robert then set off deeper into the forest…and deeper into the unknown.