April 5th, 2024

Doctors, Writers, and Readers – a book review by Jim Vogele

NORTH WOODS by Daniel Mason, MD (Publisher:  Random House) 2023, ISBN 9780593597033 [Hardback]


Since publishing this website for Montana, Washington, California, and Oregon physician contract reviews, I have kept my eyes open for books with a healthcare setting or books written by physicians. Thus, I was certainly aware of the work of Samuel Shem, the pen name of Stephen Bergman, MD, whose novel, THE HOUSE OF GOD, has been on my radar. You may well have read, or heard of, Shem’s novel, which has sold over 2 million copies. I look forward to reading it!

Meanwhile, I work through my stack of reading, and, of course, add to it. Recently, a history-professor friend recommended NORTH WOODS, a novel by Daniel Mason, MD. I wasn’t aware that Mason was a physician until I picked up a copy of the book. In a nice coincidence, Mason is not only a Pulitzer-nominated author but also a practicing psychiatrist at Stanford and an alumni of Harvard Medical School. Indeed, the same week that I started reading NORTH WOODS, I received my copy of the March-April 2024 “Harvard Magazine.” Harvard being Harvard, the alumni magazine often includes fine articles about graduates who have excelled in one field or another (and there are many) as well as brief reportage on literature, politics, and natural sciences.

And lo, the March-April 2024 Harvard Magazine contained pieces on both Samuel Shem and Daniel Mason. The feature article in Harvard Magazine alerted me to the full scope of Shem’s writing – four novels telling the story of Roy Basch, MD including the wildly successful THE HOUSE OF GOD; and there in the pages of the same publication was Dr. Daniel Mason.




NORTH WOODS is a brilliantly-structured, “object-across-time” work of fiction, as the New York Times calls it. I’ve read other object-across-time fiction, including Annie Proulx’s ACCORDIAN CRIMES. While I enjoyed the latter, I found it did not quite live up to the standards of Proulx’s wonderful SHIPPING NEWS and her famous short story, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, first published in The New Yorker. Daniel Mason’s most recent novel is not about medicine in any specific sense – and, to be honest, it does not directly elucidate anything about physician contract reviews. However, NORTH WOODS is a fascinating example of the structure necessary to organize any extended piece of writing, including physician employment contracts.

NORTH WOODS illustrates that a solid, coherent narrative can be built of wildly disparate elements. Mason uses time and the natural world as well as the history of a yellow house over the course of three centuries to stitch together a narrative that includes poems, songs, letters, and good old-fashioned prose fiction. I have not seen, and never expect to see, a poem, song, or lyric of any sort in an Oregon physician employment contract (nor in a Montana, Washington, or California physician contract). But as the story unfolds Mason uses the varied literary forms masterfully to create a seamless whole, not unlike the house at the center of NORTH WOODS, which is pieced together, addition by addition.

In NORTH WOODS, Daniel Mason has created a remarkable story of a house in western Massachusetts and of its inhabitants – both real and imaginary — over hundreds of years. Mason’s plot manages to encompass the pre-Revolutionary war period, the Revolution, the Civil War and abolitionists (and slave bounty hunters) all the way up through the present time.  And through it all, the house abides, it lasts, and it grows with additions constructed and re-constructed by its many new owners and inhabitants over the years. If you’re like me, there may be segments of NORTH WOODS that you enjoy more than others. Occasionally, due to the passage of time and diversity of characters, you may perhaps lose specific track of exactly ‘what’s going on.’ But that feeling never lasts, and before long the book always reels you back into the narrative current.

It is not surprising that Mason is a fine novelist, as NORTH WOODS is the product of a writer who has been practicing his craft for a long time. He published his first novel, THE PIANO TUNER, when he was in his late 20s and still in medical school. After a writing hiatus between med school and residency, a period in which he published his second novel, in 2018 Mason published his third novel, THE WINTER SOLDIER. This third novel perhaps should have been the first Mason novel I read, as the protagonist is a medical student thrust into the field (a church converted into a makeshift battlefront hospital) in World War I.

Before I get too far afield however . . . . NORTH WOODS.

In a short review such as this, one can merely scratch the narrative surface. Suffice to say here that NORTH WOODS and its diverse cast of characters, including the house and its ghosts and the apple orchard outside, will stay with you for a good long time. That is a strong recommendation, indeed. I should also note here that, although the 2024 Pulitzer Prizes will not be awarded until May 2024 (next month), the dust jacket of my hard-bound NORTH WOODS states, “FINALIST FOR THE PULTIZER PRIZE” (I’ve seen references to the fact that the Pulitzer finalists are not announced in advance, but in reality this must mean they are not widely or publicly announced!).




In the medical field website Medscape.com, I noticed in a recent piece about side-gigs and non-clinical careers for physicians, with the five most popular being:  “working for a healthcare company,” “working for a pharma company,” “working for a tech company,” “teaching, and, yes, “writing.” Among the various books I’ve reviewed for this physician contract review site, the brilliant writing of Atul Gawande certainly comes to mind as an example of a practicing physician who is also a fantastic writer.

While Gawande’s works are literary nonfiction, not only are Gawande and Daniel Mason both practicing physicians but they have in common that they can flat-out write. Mason’s prose is smooth as the stones in the riverbed that runs through the woods beyond the apple grove and the old yellow house.  For example, as he talks about the Osgood twin sisters, whose father, an erstwhile English soldier, had discovered the apple tree whose fruit now carries the Osgood name (the “Osgood Wonder”), Mason writes:

There were of course, occasional exceptions – the rare night one might spend alone if the other were waylaid by a snowstorm, or the weeks of illness in which one, and then the other, stayed in bed. But such variance was rare. If life, as the man said, was a s0ng, theirs was more refrain than verse. And yet to have claimed that a warm spring morning walking over earth carpeted with apple blossoms was somehow the same, substantively, spiritually, as a cold winter noon spent pruning, or a harvest evening heavy with the smell of juice and hay – this would have betrayed ignorance not only of country life, but of the thousand seasons – of frogsong, of thunderheads, of first thaws – that hid within the Canonical four.


As you can see, Mason’s prose is good stuff. In another splendid example, one of Mason’s characters uses the metaphor of a complex German linguistic concoction as comparison to the grand older houses of western Massachusetts and New England generally. I see this passage by Mason also caught the attention of The New York Times reviewer, Ethan Canin, who also happens to be a physician in addition to his own writing career (he is on the faculty at the renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa:  “Out here, no one tears down anyway – one just adds upon, agglutinates, house to house, shed to shed, like some monstrous German noun. Everywhere one finds these rambling masses:  new wing goes up, old one becomes the servants’ quarters, old servants’ quarters become the barn, old barn becomes the carriage house, and so on. They molt, these houses!”

The professional reading of a physician contract review lawyer rarely features such sweet-sounding phrasing or literary innovation. Indeed, an Oregon physician contract review client recently said to me that he had “tried to read this thing,” referring to his physician employment contract, “but I couldn’t quite get through it.” Well, that’s where I come in, because I do read physician employment contracts, closely and carefully. While the topics covered in physician contracts are often similar, whether you are looking at a Washington physician contract or a California physician contract, the details are what matter (and occasionally, of course, an important topic will be omitted entirely from a contract – and if that happens, I will let you know, as well as suggesting how to address the omission with the employer).

In physician contracts, I always appreciate solid structure, logic, and plain English where bread-and-butter verbiage will do the job. And trust me, some physician contracts are reasonable exemplars of straightforward English and some are not. In any event, when I’ve been working with a contract of the latter variety, taking a break to read poetic prose such as Daniel Mason’s is a breath of fresh air and inspiration.




In addition to the Oregon physician who was not enjoying the contract-reading experience, I recently worked on a physician employment contract with a west-coast-based orthopedic surgeon who indicated that he’d tried to read his contract, but the agreement was written in a fashion that did not exactly capture and/or hold his attention. He also noted that the contract seemed excessively long and complex. I cannot say that I fault him or the sentiment; furthermore, he made the arguably wise decision to have me read the contract and alert him to any issues that needed to be addressed or negotiated with the employer. The physician employment contract in that instance was, indeed, a densely-worded document – not inscrutable, but scrutable only by dint of close attention and patience.

Because I’ve read many hundreds of physician contracts, I am familiar with the language and structure of various compensation models, restrictive covenants, provisions concerning professional liability insurance, various grounds for termination and the so-called “black-letter law” provisions found in most contracts, e.g. integration and assignability clauses, waiver and governing law provisions and so forth. Thus, it’s not difficult for me to review and issue-spot – it just requires time, close attention, and, with some contracts more than others, patience.

As it was recommended to me, I highly recommend NORTH WOODS to you. It turns out that writing is a natural sideline for a physician with a passion for story-telling and for the potentially pleasing puzzles of syntax and grammar. Daniel Mason’s accomplishment in NORTH WOODS is proof positive of that.