Saturday, March 21, 2015

"The Living"
by Annie Dillard

“The Living” by Annie Dillard portrays the numerous hardships and the strengths and weaknesses of character of the original white settlers and their immediate descendents in the northwest corner of Washington State during the last half of the Nineteenth Century.  Her novel begins in the fall of 1855 with the arrival of a fictitious pioneer family, the Fishburns, and ends in July 1897 with a celebratory gathering of second and third generation friends that include a Fishburn son and granddaughter.  It is a historical novel that informs us, that engages us with its interesting characters, and that tests our patience. 

The novel’s authenticity is one of its strengths.  It is evident throughout that Annie Dillard knows her subject matter.  One example is how early settlers felled huge Douglas fir.  The fastest way was to use fire.  They would augur one foot long holes downward into the massive tree trunks.  They would then bore holes laterally to connect with the downward-angled holes.  Next, they would insert burning sticks into the downward holes,  the lateral holes to serve as a draft for smoke to escape.  The next day “deep inside, the fired trees were burning.  Weak yellow flames curled low from their trunks.”  The following day “the trees started to fall, one after the other, and shook the earth so the house jumped.    The house rose, and everything in it rose, too … Shreds of cast green lichens, like bits of beard, blew into the house, with twigs, bark, sawdust, and plain dust. … The charred stumps kept burning.  … The fir roots were so pitchy that a man could burn them right in the ground.”  Not once did I doubt the novel’s setting or historical accuracy.

We who have lived life into our senior years know well what human existence is about.  We are brought into this world without our consent, as children we are taught (or not taught) how to survive, if fortunate we live to adulthood, we procreate, and we survive until we don’t.  The quality of our existence is more often determined by factors beyond our control -- governmental decisions, economic forces, groups of people, individuals, chance -- than by our force of will.  We, nobody else, determine our lives’ value.  This appears to be the central theme of the novel.  I appreciated how Dillard’s characters grappled with difficult burdens, endured unexpected tragedy, and strived to ascribe meaning to their lives.  “The Living” is a dark story that offers little optimism that man will ever ascend beyond his baser elements.  Strive as we may to make better the lives of our family members, friends, and neighbors, stronger forces ultimately restrict if not defeat our brave efforts and force us eventually to live safe lives of avoidance of that which may be harmful.  I prized this aspect of the novel.

The main characters were well developed and, at times, intriguing.

Ada Fishburn loses her three-year-old son Charley on the wagon trail west. Standing by the front passenger barrier of his parents’ wagon, he topples over.  “… their own wheels ran him over, one big wheel after the other, and he burst inwardly and died.”  She and her husband Rooney carve out a plot of land amidst the enormous, ever-present firs.  Six years after their arrival from Illinois, their four-year-old daughter Lettie dies of an ear infection.  Eleven years later Rooney, digging a well, releases a stream of poisonous gas and instantly succumbs.  Ada’s second husband dies accidentally three years later.  She reaches old age, a good woman in every respect.  “The more time God granted her on this earth,” she reflects near the end of her life, “the more she saw it rain, but He mustn’t think she wasn’t grateful, because she was grateful – only if He was giving out time, why not pass some to people who needed it?”

Ada’s son Clare learns the ways of existence in and outside the local towns of Whatcom and Goshen, survives childhood, and becomes a somewhat shallow-minded but helpful, generous adult.  An event occurs after he has married and fathered a daughter that causes him to anticipate sudden death.  Previously caught up in a land development boom, having accepted the prevailing attitude that life’s prime purpose is to acquire wealth, Clare is forced to contemplate what is most important about life.

In 1879, thirteen-year-old John Ireland Sharp participates in an expedition led by his grandfather up the Skagit River into the mountains to seek a pass through which a transcontinental railroad might be built to reach the Pacific shores.  The party comes upon a dying Indian youth impaled on a pointed stake embedded in the ground.  John Ireland is shaken by the experience.  Two years later, hard times having come to the Whatcom area, the boy’s father moves his large family to Madrone Island, of the San Juan Islands in Rosario Strait.  Soon after their arrival John Ireland is severely beaten by Beal Obenchain, a large-sized local boy.  Two of John’s ribs are broken.  He recovers.  The bully’s lies about the cause of the beating are believed; he is not punished.  The family ekes out a primitive existence.  One day John Ireland remains on shore while his parents and brothers and sisters board their skiff to go to Orcas Island to see a man who sells tulip bulbs.  The sky has the look of rain.  Hours later Beal Obenchain’s father spies the skiff adrift, empty.  All of John Ireland’s family is lost.  He carries with him over the succeeding years this thought: “the people you knew were above water one minute, and under it the next, as if they had burst through ice.  They went down stiff and upright in their filled gum boots and soaked skirts; they stood dead on the bottom and swayed with the currents like fixed kelp, his mother and father and sisters and brothers standing in a row on the ocean floor.”  John is adopted by the Obenchains, kind people, notwithstanding Beal.  Eventually, John leaves the island, grows into manhood, and embraces socialist principles.

Beal Obenchain is psychotic.  He is driven by an overpowering sense of unworthiness.  To stave off episodes of psychological impotence he commits violent acts, receiving from them sufficient energy temporarily to face everyday that which diminishes him.  At various places throughout the book we witness his cruel acts; and we yearn to see his come-uppance. 

1874, Baltimore, Maryland.  Minta Randall, daughter of U.S. Senator Green Randall, marries Eustace Honer, a young man of nearly equal social standing but afflicted by impractical dreams of engaging in adventurous enterprises.  Minta, who is physically unattractive, forces her reluctant parents to consent to this marriage, Eustace deemed by them and the parents of other eligible debutantes to be an undesirable match.  Scorning the stilted life of wealth and privilege, their imagination fired by brochures extolling the virtues of Puget Sound, Minta and Eustace move to Goshen and buy property (320 acres) next to Ada Fishburn and her adult son Clare.  Minta and Eustace adapt well to their demanding environment.  Despite their wealth, they are accepted by the local inhabitants.  They produce children. 

Eleven years after their marriage, in 1885, the local community decides to clear a huge log jam on the Nooksack River.  “The jam was three quarters of a mile long – a city of trees and logs … It had been there as long as anyone … could remember.  A forest straddled the river on top of the jam.  Fifteen or twenty feet above the waterline, Douglas firs and silver firs with trunks four feet thick were growing a hundred feet high from soil trapped in the smashed mess of logs.  Birds nested in the trees.”  It takes three months to clear the jam.  Near the end of the work Eustace slips on a log and falls into the water.  Its current takes him under a layer of logs.  He drowns.  His nine-year-old son Hugh witnesses it.

Minta is devastated.  Her parents travel to the Northwest to console her.  On the evening of their arrival by steamboat, Minta prepares to meet them at the Goshen dock.  Hugh builds a fire in the fireplace to warm the house.  She and Hugh travel by coach to the dock.  Minta’s two younger children are left at home to sleep.  The fire that Hugh has built consumes the house, and his siblings within.  Minta is reduced almost to a catatonic state.  Ada Fishburn tells her, finally: “Hugh has not been going to school, and when he’s here you don’t see him, bless his heart, and with the help of God you must stir yourself.  For you have a child still living.”  Minta must contend both with her loss and, again, with her parents’ objectionable wishes.  Move back to Baltimore, they say.  There is a suitable man you once expressed love for.  He has not married.

Three years later Hugh discovers Ada’s second husband dead of a broken neck, the result of a riding accident suffered while traveling during a rainstorm.  It seems to Hugh that he is predestined to continue to witness death.  Watching a community celebration of the launching of a locally built racing yacht when he is seventeen, recognizing that he is damaged, he reflects: “People seemed so joyous tonight, yet it was the same world it ever was, and they all had forgotten.  When a baby is born its fuse lights.  The ticking begins, and the fire starts fizzing down its length.”  He has fallen in love with Ada Fishburn’s granddaughter Vinnie.  Greatly influenced by what has happened to him, he must make a decision. 

These characters kindled my emotions.  Their fates mattered to me.  Yet it took me two months to read this book, mostly because of what I will call thick narration.  Part of the narration’s “thickness” is due to the author’s considerable use of description, most of which, unlike the passage below, is not sharply visual. 

He saw that darkness was spreading from the land.  In the dark, five or six bonfires were going.  People sat lighted by flames, and from a distance the live sparks that rose over the fire seemed to emanate from the people; the yellow sparks turned red and, as they met the darkness, went out.

Part of the “thickness” is due also to the author’s too frequent explication of abstract thoughts.

Marriage began to strike him as a theater, where actors gratefully dissimulate, in ordinary affection and trust, their bottom feeling, which is a mystery too powerful to be endured.  They know and feel more than life in time can match; they must anchor themselves against eternity, as they play on a painted set, lest they swing out into the twining realms.

Also bothersome to me was that the main characters’ story-lines moved slowly.  For example, it took seemingly forever for Beal Obenchain’s fate to be revealed.  Deleting much of the information provided about unimportant characters would have quickened the novel’s pace.

But then I would come upon an excellently narrated scene like this: 

In every corner of their big house she stumbled into Eustace’s precisely shaped absence, and in the yard, the woods, the fields, garden, and barn.  She carried herself carefully, like a scalding bowl – plain Minta, whose neck sloped straight from her linen collar, whose clear forehead and high brows stayed fixed.  By herself and for herself, she tried to be splendid.  Only secretly, as she tended the quarreling younger children and worked the ranch, did she whisper to herself deep in her mind, “I am dished.”  For where, exactly, had he gone, and the intensity of his ways?

“The Living” is a substantial undertaking that, somewhat flawed, captured my interest and gained my respect.