Monday, February 14, 2011

Conrad Richter's The Town

I passed up a complete set of Conrad Richter. What was I thinking? I was tempted.   I'm almost finished with his compelling Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Town, and am looking forward to his other books.   

But I made a vow last week not to buy a book for ten months. So I mused about my resolve for a minute, realizing how sensible it was.  I HAVEN'T BOUGHT A BOOK IN FOUR DAYS. And not buying is a release from a strain.

Thank goodness the library has Richter's books.
The library has plenty of his books.

In junior high I read Richter's The Light in the Forest, a novel of pioneer and Indian life consumed in English class along with Marjorie Kinnan Rawling's The Yearling (a classic) and John Steinbeck's The Pearl. This was as contemporary as teachers got:  the first half of the 20th century. 

Richter's The Light in the Forest, the story of a pioneer boy captured in a raid and raised by American Indians, didn't appeal to me much. Boys were the heroes of the books we read in school.   Girls are alleged to be open to reading books about both sexes, but  I may have been an exception. 

On the other hand, many years later, I am enthusiastic about Richter's realistic rendering of 19th-century American life.  I admire his simple, sometimes elegant, sometimes odd or sentimental, prose, the naturalness of his use of dialect, and the memorable characters.

Published in 1950, The Town is the third in a trilogy, The Awakening Land, about a family of Ohio settlers in the 19th century.  I am beginning with the third novel, because it won the Pulitzer, and I wanted to read him at his best.  Written from a third-person omniscient point of view, this vigorous novel tells the story of a growing town, Americus, Ohio, through the chronicles of the Wheeler family.  It centers on Sayward Wheeler, a hard-working pioneer woman who is the wife of Portius, a Yankee lawyer, and the mother of nine children.  She faces many changes as her land is cleared, cultivated, and slowly gobbled up by developers and public works. Sometimes she gets a good price, but other times she is gypped.  Then her husband desires to build a big house on one of her lots in town.

She takes over negotiating with the builders when she finds the workers haven't been paid.  She realizes Portius intended all along only to pay half and for her, land-rich, to pay the other half.  She can't imagine what she'll do with such a house. 

I get goosebumps over some of the scenes.  Yes, I know that is corny, but I really love Sayward's determination and courage.  She never feels limited by her sex. She realizes she is a "woodsy," someone who doesn't want to live in a city.
"The moving part she put off till the very last.  The truth was she hated to leave the cabin.  Most of her life had she lived here. Now she would have to give it up for a place where it looked like she was putting on airs, thinking herself better than ordinary folks.  The last day she kept looking about the cabin.  How many times had she stood at the fire with her long-handed pan, or gone down on her knees of a morning to puff at the coals.  This ladder and those steps, how often had she climbed them when one of the young ones lay abed ailing.  Why, forty years of her life had she spent between these log walls.  And now she had to go and leave them."

Parts of the narrative are told from the point-of-view of her youngest child, Chancey, a sickly, dreamy child who resists Sayward's attempts to persuade him to walk to town or attend school like normal children, until he meets his father's illegitimate daughter, Rosa, another dreamer.  The two imaginative children take refuge in the woods together and create a fairy world.  Then Chancey is motivated to walk and play.

Rosa's mother is a schoolteacher who got knocked up by Portius and then married Jake Tench, a drunk.  She never leaves the house and is hostile toward Rosa.  She reads all day long.

Chancey, when he first meets Rose's mother:

"But the most alien thing was Rosa's mother sitting here with him, her tangled hair falling over the soiled shoulders of her once fine dress with tassels.  She was reading a book in the darkest corner as if she had owl's or cat's eyes.  Right in the middle of all this dirt and disorder she sat at her ease, and in the middle of the day when women still had most of their work to do."

Sound familiar? 

If you love Willa Cather, Mildred Walker or Bess Streeter Aldrich, I recommend this regional novel, which is available  from Ohio University Press. 


Gina C in AL said...

I read the Awakening Land trilogy at the recommendation of my mother. I am glad I listened. I remember the books with great fondness and they are on my list for a reread when I find them again. My local library is pitiful. These books interested me because I grew up in the same part of the country and my ancestors came to the Ohio Territory about the same time. I seem to recall there was a mini-series based on the books back in the late 70s and Elizabeth Montgomery portrayed Sayward. Havent thought of that for years, must look for it on the net!

Frisbee said...

I'll have to look for the miniseries.

I'm really enjoying these books and almost missed my bus stop while reading The Town.