Friday, October 14, 2016

Book Review
"The Fields"
by Conrad Richter
 
 
Conrad Richter’s “The Fields” is the second novel of ”The Awakening Land” trilogy, which chronicles changing frontier life in southern Ohio beginning after the American Revolution and lengthening into the Nineteenth Century.  Sayward Luckett Wheeler, the novel’s main character -- instinctively wise, competent, emotionally balanced – faces now different challenges.  Long gone from her life are her father Worth, the inveterate hunter; her mother Jary, buried so long ago; and two sisters: the child Sulie, taken away by Indians, and the devious Achsa, living in the English Lakes area with her sister Genny’s husband Louie Scurrah.  Of Sayward’s siblings only Genny and Wyitt remain. 
 
During the time period of “The Fields,” which begins just before Ohio’s statehood is declared in 1803, Sayward -- married to the learned recluse Portius Wheeler at the conclusion of “The Trees” -- gives birth to eight children.  The novel concerns itself with Sayward’s experiences as a mother, wife, homemaker, and land owner.  It reveals several important experiences of three of Sayward’s older children.  It exposes several of Portius’s not always commendable peculiarities.  It chronicles the transition of the fledgling river settlement close to Sayward’s property from mostly a trading post establishment to a recognizable, successful town.
 
Specific events mark the transition.  Statehood is declared.  A township is created, necessitating the listing of property and acreage for taxing purposes.  A large community hunt is undertaken to drive wild life out of the woods.  A community meeting house is built on a parcel of Sayward’s property.  A grain mill is built on the river.  A school for boys is constructed.  The town of Tateville is created.  A locally built keel boat is launched.  Toil, self-sacrifice, selfishness, disillusionment, tragedy, and self-discovery companion these events.
 
What engaged me most – not to ignore the novel’s feel of authenticity and depth of knowledge about frontier life at that time in that locality – was the author’s superb use of subjective narration to reveal at certain crisis moments his primary characters’ thoughts and emotions.  Here are several examples.
 
Sayward’s fourth child and first daughter Sulie – so bright and engaging, walks on ashes outside the house to impress her brothers.  Her dress catches on fire.
 
If she got to be a hundred years old, Sayward told herself, never without her voice breaking could she tell a stranger how it went with their little Sulie that day.  How she lay in her bed looking up at them with blackened rims where her eyelashes ought to be.  How one minute she had been in this world light and free, and the next the gates of the other world were open and she had to pass through.  Already she was where her own mammy couldn’t reach her.  She couldn’t even touch grease to that scorched young flesh without Sulie screaming so they could hear her over at the Covenhovens.
All the time in her mind she could see that little body when she first started to walk.  Back and forwards Sulie’s small red dress used to go, her little red arms out to balance.  She’d never get a weary.  She could go it all day, wraggling and wriggling, skipping and jumping, going hoppity-hoppity, nodding and bobbing, in and out, from one side to another.  Did that little mite know, she wondered?  Did something tell her she had only a short while in this world, and that’s why she was always on the go, making up for it, cutting one dido after another?
 
Sayward’s brother Wyitt decides to surrender to his desire to become a full-time hunter.  Savoring his participation in the big community hunt to rid the woods of wildlife, he determines he must leave the area, strike out independently.
 
No, never could he go back to corn-hoeing after today.  Those black moose they told about and the hairy and naked wild bulls over the big river!  He would have to see them and trail them and get them in his sights.  Likewise the tiger cat, the striped prairie deer that outran the wind and the big horns that some called mountain rams.  … He would send home his share of today’s meat…  He would pick up his traps from his line and go.  But never would he stop in at Sayward’s, for if he did, he might stay.
 
.. Oh, never would he go back to Sayward and Portius now, and yet he hated running off without saying something.  Sayward had raised him, you might say.  He had fought her plenty and called her names, but most times it turned out she was right.  Maybe she was right that those who followed the woods never amounted to much.  A farmer could stay in one place and gather plunder, she claimed, but a hunter had to keep following the game.  … He knowed she was right.  He had knowed it a long time.  He had tried to break his self of it.  He’d knock the wildness out of him, he said, if it was the last thing he did.  He had done his dangdest to kill the ever-hunter in him, but it wouldn’t stay killed.
 
… They [his nephews] were harder to leave than his full sister, for he took to them, and they to him. Especially Resolve, that tyke was different from his Uncle Wyitt as daylight to night time.  For a little feller he was steady as could be.  He could even read and write where Wyitt couldn’t sign his own name.  He was his uncle’s favor-rite.  Wyitt wished he had asked him to write something on a piece of paper so he could take it with him.  Then some time he sat alone at night in some far woods or prairie, he could take out that paper.  It would make him see Resolve plain as if standing here, screwing up his mouth and making pothooks and curleycues with his goosefeather pen while around him his smaller brothers watched and admired.
 
Sayward’s second-born son Guerdon is willful, selfish, and, sometimes, disobedient. 
 
Guerdon wished he had him another mammy.  Oh, once he liked his mam good enough, but she’d changed.  She’d gone back on him.  He couldn’t make her out any more.
 
First she stood a slab bench with a gourd of soft soap by the run, and all had to scrub their heads and hands like they were pewter plates.  Then she hung up a haw comb, and every time before you came in to eat, you have to hackle your hair with it.  Oh, she was bound you’d be somebody around here.  She put these puncheons down in the cabin just so she’d had a floor to scour, he believed.  Now she talked of getting lime from Maytown and making her boys whitewash the logs.
 
Her ways were so “cam” you figured she was easy-going, but that’s where she fooled you.  The day wasn’t long enough for the things she studied out to do to get you along in the world.
 
Sayward assigns Guerdon and his younger brother Kinzie to mill corn.  The sweat mill standing in the chimney corner …  was the devil’s own contraption and turned hard as a four-horse wagon.  A day’s grinding seemed a month long, and no Sabbaths.
 
While Sayward is away helping nurse a neighbor, the two boys take the corn they have been assigned to mill to the new grain mill at the river.  They spend the entire day listening to stories told by patrons before returning home with a large sack of well-grounded flour.  Sayward switches them.  In bed that night, Guerdon is resentful.
 
No, he wanted for forget his mam.  He didn’t care if he never thought of her again.
 
Later in the novel Guerdon is bit on a finger by a rattlesnake.  He cuts off the upper portion of his finger.  Neighbors gather inside Sayward’s cabin to offer suggestions and witness the snakebite’s outcome.  Sayward tends Guerdon as she sees fit.
 
Guerdon believed he felt a mite better.  It had worse things in this world than to lay here with nothing to do but have folks talk and worry over you.  He couldn’t get over how good his mam had been to him.  She was so “cam” most times you thought she took you for granted and didn’t give a whoop for you any more.  But let something real like this or stone blindness or black plague come along and you found out how much she liked you.  Why, she’d chop off her own finger if it would help him any, he could tell.  It gave him a feeling for her like old times.
 
I did not enjoy “The Fields” as much as I did “The Trees,” the first novel of Richter’s trilogy; although I am happy that I read it.  “The Fields,” I felt, lacked its predecessor’s dramatic edge.  Conflicts seemed a bit less daunting, less consequential.  I look forward to reading the third novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Town,” which, I expect, will focus on the consequences of a major human failing committed by Portius in “The Fields,” a failing I chose not to reveal in this review.