Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Trees by Conrad Richter

About a month ago, Alicia at Posie Gets Cozy asked her readers for suggestions on novels and other reads on the American frontier and pioneers. I appreciated this request as a good way to compile my own list on this topic, which is always of interest to me. From the long list of recommended books, many of which sounded wonderful, I chose to read was The Trees by Conrad Richter, which I had recently found out about and was very curious to read.

Suffice it to say that this is one of the best books I have ever read in my life.

I did not expect it to find it so. The Trees is about the Luckett family in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War and their move from Pennsylvania to the great forests of Ohio, where they build their cabin so surrounded by trees that in the summer months, it is impossible to see the sky. It is hard to imagine living in such a remote, unsettled area, so closed off from a landscape of human modification. It is doubly hard to imagine it with as few human-made amenities as the Lucketts had brought along. Yet, they carved out an existence there that permitted the father, Worth Luckett, to hunt--the reason for their move being the draining of the Pennsylvania woods of the game that Worth Luckett pursued as his meaning in life.

Richter well evokes the vulnerability of human beings in the elements in which the Lucketts find themselves alone. Even with neighbors slowly making their way into the area, life remains exceedingly precarious. It doesn't take anyone too far into this book before you are worrying about the Luckett children like a fretting mother yourself, racing home from work to find out if they will survive what surrounds them--unrelenting darkness, creatures of every kind, plants beneficial and dangerous, the giant trees, and the unknown-unknowable. We are in awe of the enterprise these weakling humans have undertaken, children in tow, and their imagination and resourcefulness in bending nature's productions to their own every-day needs.

Even if the author had told his story in a down-to-earth humdrum style, this would have been a good book. What makes it an extraordinary book is Richter's language, as if the tale were being told by an omniscient woodsman observer striding right alongside the Lucketts in this dense 18th-century American forest. The cadence of this language hurls us into this distant world, like a fast river that does not stop til the last page.

In his introduction, Richter tell us that this language
approximating as it does the store of 18th- and early 19th-century speech collected from old manuscripts, letters, and records, a speech quite different from the formal written and printed language of the time into which the talk of citizens, the testimony of court witnesses, and even the conversation of ladies and gentleman in the privacy of their family circles, had almost invariably to be translated before reaching the respectability of public print. This early, vigorous spoken language, contrary to public belief, had its considerable origin in the Northeastern states, whence it was carried by emigrants into Ohio and adjoining territories, where today [1940] it has largely disappeared, and, along with the Pennsylvania rifle, into the South and Southwest, where it has more widely survived and it is sometimes thought to be a purely native form of speech but which, wherever found, should be recognized with its local variants as a living reminder of the great mother tongue of early America.

This language makes The Trees a tour de force and in so doing plants the story of our early American forebears firmly in the heart and mind. The Trees is the first of a trilogy and is followed by The Fields and The Town. I am excited to read more of the Luckett family, but I imagine that The Trees is in a class all its own.


bookssnob said...

This is going to be a must read for me - I am so fascinated by pioneers at the moment and this review has certainly convinced me to add The Trees to my list. I find the stories of these brave people endlessly interesting and I am also intrigued by the language usage you mention - I noticed in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Farmer Boy that the family use a strange diction, saying 'be' instead of 'are', such as 'be you awake?'. I wonder if that's related to what you mention?

Linda said...

Hi Bookssnob, I can't describe his language. There is a cadence to the book also, and various archaic words, such as candlewood, which I presume is a type of wood that could be lit up and would stay lit for a while and that you could hold. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did. I think our language has been flattened out a lot from what it used to be. I know that in the PBS Civil War series a lot of letters from that period are quoted, and the language of ordinary writing was very beautiful. This language is not highly educated but embodies a kind of thought process, I guess. The author spends most of the time inside the mind of the eldest daughter. Hope you enjoy it. I love the Wilder books and read them to my daughter.

Anonymous said...

i read the trees years ago and have always enjoyed it. there is a sequel to it also, but can't remember the name. i am sure you can look it up.they also made a movie about it, but it wasn't that good.

Jodi said...

Linda, this book sounds so good. It reminds me of visiting the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, VA. My husband and I watched with gaping mouths a young couple building a log cabin by themselves. They weren't play acting, but actually constructing the cabin. It was kind of frightening to watch them hoist huge logs into place.

Also, have you ever heard of the book Heartland (it's also a movie), about a woman homesteader, starring Rip Torn and Conchata Ferrell? It's very realistic. I loved it.

Thanks for your prayers concerning Joy and Rhys. They're okay.

Sandy said...

Thank you for your lovely post on "The Trees" - one of my favorite books of all time. I have place a link to your post on my blog at
I hope that is okay. I'll be back to visit your blog again soon to read more of your posts. Your blog has a beautiful look!