Tuesday, April 26, 2016

"The Trees"
by Conrad Richter
Conrad Richter’s “The Trees” is the first of a series of three novels called “The Awakening Land.”  The third novel, “The Town,” won the 1951 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.  Based on the quality I perceived in “The Trees,” I intend to read the entire series.
One reason I liked this novel so much is that Richter’s characters are so rich and diverse. This is especially true of the Luckett family members, the story’s central characters. 
Worth Luckett is ill-suited for settlement life.  He is a “woodsy,” an expert in the ways of hunting, a man who has “itchy feet.”  His driving passion is to hunt and explore places he has never seen.  Soon after the Revolutionary War, when game becomes scarce in frontier Pennsylvania, he moves his family into the nearly impenetrable woods of Ohio where he builds a cabin in a forest so dense that sunlight barely penetrates.  “It was a sea of solid treetops broken only by some gash where deep beneath the foliage an unknown stream made its way,” the author narrates.  Not entirely selfish, Worth demonstrates several times during the story his love for his wife and children.   
His wife Jary is a practical-minded, instinctively wise woman who values the presence of neighbors but is loyal to the wishes of her man.  She dislikes the absence of sunlight in the forest where Worth builds their cabin, but she accepts her lot.  “She had had her say and what good did it do her?  The time to have set herself against this place was away back in the old state when Worth claimed the squirrels were leaving the country.  Now she and her young ones were here and here likely they would stay.”  In poor health, Jary dies early in the novel.
The eldest of the five children is Sayward Luckett, the novel’s main character.  At the beginning of the novel she is seventeen, intuitive in judgment, strong both physically and emotionally, sensitive to the needs of others, entirely dependable but subservient to no one.  After Jary’s death Worth turns to Sayward to resolve difficult family-matters.  Sayward becomes her siblings’ mother.
The next oldest child is Genny, sweet in disposition, physically attractive, a gentle, naive soul whose presence enriches the lives of her family members and of neighbors the family eventually meets.  She is a vulnerable character about whom we feel protective.  The author places her in a situation that causes us much concern.
The third oldest child is Achsa, quite the opposite of Genny.  Achsa is physically powerful and cynical.  She frequently taunts her siblings -- especially Genny.  She has a mean streak.  We discover that she is quite devious.
The second youngest child is Wyitt, the only boy.  Wyitt is a reincarnation of his father.  He is a proud, bull-headed boy determined to become as skilled a hunter as his father.  Like his father, he is not entirely self-absorbed.  In several important instances he demonstrates his love for his sisters.
The youngest child is Sulie, the apple of Worth’s eye.  She is spirited, inquisitive, honest in her actions, not hesitant in expressing her feelings and beliefs.  “One time she could look at you with such a helpless mouth, and then when you least expected it, she was spunky as a young coon and said grand things that no one dared think of.”  Like Genny, she is a “beloved character,” somebody we especially want protected.  The author places her also in a situation that causes us substantial concern.
Several other characters are well crafted.  Two are particularly important.  There is Louie Scurrah, a villain of sorts, a former companion of the historical person Simon Girty.  Scurrah and Girty had lived with Indians and participated in the torture of American soldiers prior to the Revolutionary War.  Louie is a charmer whom only Sayward and Sulie continue to distrust.   The other important character is Portius Wheeler, the “Solitary,” an eloquent Bay State lawyer who had chosen to live “out in the bush by his lonesome.  Most times you couldn’t get any more talk out of him than a deaf and dumb mute.”
I appreciated just as much the novel’s feel of authenticity. 
First of all, the story is historically informative.  I read how a forest cabin was built, what animals were hunted, what material goods forest women valued, what food was cooked, what tools a “woodsy” needed, what goods the local trading post desired and traded, what clothes were worn, and in a cabin housing seven people what comprised beds. 
Visual detail also provides authenticity.
She [Sayward] could see him [Wyitt] in her mind, yonder through the ups and downs of life, skinning deer and trap-drowned mink and otter, giving a rap over the head to foxes that hid in bushes ashamed to be caught and to coons that sat up as big as you please on a log as if they didn’t have a trap and clog hanging to one paw.  Snared panthers would shed real tears when he pulled out his hunting knife, and beaver would swim out of their smashed houses and find he had left no ice for them to come up and breathe under. …
That shock of sandy hair would be farther down over his shoulders then and his young face that had hardly fuzz on it as yet would be covered thick with a sandy beard.  His buckskins would be bloody where he wiped his hands, and his hair would be full of nits.  Not often would he wash, least of all his itchy feet. 
Adding to the feeling of authenticity is the author’s style of narration.  Here is an example -- Genny’s observation of preparations for a Fourth of July celebration.
She had almost forgotten how it felt to get among a passel of folks on pleasure bent.  The young ones were making high jack all over the place, wrestling and fighting, racing and wading, swinging on creepers, every last one yelling at the other and none listening.  Some of the men were pulling a flag up on a high hickory limb.  Others were laying meat over a pit of white oak coals to roast.  This was one time, they said, when the he’s would show the she’s how to cook.  The women didn’t mind.  They were glad to get out of it for once and go off to themselves yonder on some logs with nothing to do but lay their littlest ones on patches of moss and swap news among themselves.
We witness authenticity also in the way characters speak.
Genny is concerned that her sister Sayward, whom she admires, might want to marry Jake Tench, a settlement man rumored to have fathered several Indian children.  He and a boy who has a romantic interested in Genny come calling.  After the two males leave, Genny demonstrates silently her displeasure.
“What’s a ailin’ you?” Sayward broke out at last.
Genny turned her back
“You needn’t talk to me after what you done.”
“Now I done something and don’t know what it was,” Sayward complained.
“You know good enough,” Genny told her.  “Jake Tench!
She could feel Sayward shake with quiet laughter.
“Don’t you fret about Jake.  He mought make free with a Shawanee wench but he kain’t with me.”
“He mought marry you,” Genny said.
Sayward’s voice hardened.
“Not him,” she told her shortly.  “Nor any other man where spits in my fire when I got bread a bakin’.”
Lastly, I value this novel for its portrayal of the universality of life.  Good and bad people and a lot of people in between populate “The Trees,” as they have done so and do in real life.  Conrad Richter’s characters mattered to me.  Passages, like this one, stirred my emotions.
When they let her back to the bed, Jary was light as a pack of dried and brittle fox skins.  Through the folds of homespun Sayward thought she could feel a coldness like stone.  ….
He [Worth] turned and went to the open door and looked out at the black forest where gray daylight was just beginning to come.  No use turning your back on this, Sayward wanted to tell him.  Whether you looked or no, death would come and life would go.  Up in the loft all signs of the young ones had vanished.  Sayward reckoned they were lying face down on their beds.
Sayward reflects at the end of the novel: “Let the good come … for the bad would come of its own self.    That’s how life was, death and birth, grub and harvest, rain and clearing, winter and summer.  You had to take one with the other, for that’s the way it ran.”  The particulars of this theme and the excellence of the writing make “The Trees” a quality novel.