Friday, March 4, 2011

The Awakening Land Trilogy by Conrad Richter

Statue of Pioneer Woman in Hamilton, Ohio (compliments of Hanneorla)

As I suspected, The Trees, the first book in the trilogy called The Awakening Land by Conrad Richter, is in a class by itself for the beauty and vitality of the language that Richter surfaced from the annals and letters and diaries of early America. That language and the story of the "woodsy" Luckett family that first staked out a home in the deep forests of early Ohio took this reader by storm.

Statue of a pioneer farmer in Kansas.

In its sequel, The Fields, we see the leading figure of this trilogy, Sayward Luckett Wheeler, now married to Portius Wheeler, an attorney who has come, for reasons unknown, from a well-off family in the Bay State of Massachusetts to the Ohio woods, where until Sayward married him, he lived alone in a shanty cabin and spent his time memorizing Latin, Greek, and English classics. Portius and Sayward produce ten children. In The Fields, Sayward is the driving force for clearing the trees, planting crops, building a church, and starting up a school. As we leave The Fields, which has the flavor but not the force of the language of The Trees, the village of Moonshine Church is on the brink of becoming a town.

By the end of The Town, Sayward lives in a large brick house built at her husband's insistence, and she, her husband, and her grown children are leading citizens and even political figures of a large town, now called Americus, that is on the brink of becoming a city.

Thus, through the span of Sayward's life, Richter gives us a window to the relentless activity and the hopes that built this country. While in The Fields, Sayward is marching at the head of the line for progress, by her middle age, the coming of town and city ways make her yearn for the old days of isolation (softened by reliable hospitality to strangers) and extremely hard work. Work is redemption for Sayward.

As the trilogy progressed, I became increasingly irritated with Richter's drawing of his characters. Although he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Town in 1951, to me this last book was a step down in quality from The Trees, written in 1940. I felt that Richter had withdrawn from the inner life of his characters, freezing them into positions representing ideas or a worldview and skirting the complexities of human flesh and blood. Even in The Trees it sometimes struck me that Sayward had the sensibility in human relationships of a man, rather than a woman. She becomes a formidable matriarch for her family. She is devoted to her children, she diligently does her duty for her husband, she both loves and fears God, she loves the land. We see her views of the changing world around her. What's missing are the tensions and upheavals of her heart. She is pure stoic; her inner struggles last but a minute.

Other than Sayward, we sometimes see things through the eyes of her children, but we never get a glimpse of the insides of her husband. Sayward and Portius seem to operate on parallel tracks to the same destination, but the rails never seem to meet emotionally or spiritually. We never see below the surface.

Given that The Awakening Land centers on the life of a strong woman, I couldn't help but compare it with a trilogy I well love, Kristin Lavransdattar penned by the Norwegian author Sigrid Undset in 1921-1922. Like The Awakening Land, Kristin Lavransdatter is a work of historical fiction; in this case the setting is medieval Catholic Norway.

The young Sigrid Undset (1882-1949). She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928.

Here, against a backdrop of political power struggles and the medieval church, we read about Kristin who becomes a wife, a noblewoman, and a matriarch and exhibits robust capabilities for perseverance and manorial management. But we are far closer to Kristin and her family than we are ever permitted to be with Sayward and hers in early Ohio five centuries later. Indeed, as Kristin discovers herself in the final book, we come away feeling that we also know her. Kristin truly loves.

The quiet love evoked within the Luckett family in The Trees is not carried over into the family of Portius Wheeler and his wife. As they become more and more invulnerable to the elements, so they seem to become more invulnerable to each other and deserted in emotional isolation. Perhaps this is the message that Richter wanted to deliver, but because he never gives us a glimpse into Portius' mind and heart, I think he was emotionally hesitant as a writer.

Nevertheless, The Awakening Land delivers a vibrant and fascinating portrayal of what it was like to live in the first 80 years of the American republic. With good reason we call our country "the home of the brave."

Also see Housekeeping in the Great Forest: The Trees 2 and Housekeeping in The Fields for some of Richter's beautiful descriptions of women's work.


Jenny said...

What a treat! I have long been a fan of the The Awakening Land trilogy and until just now have never met (in person or online) anyone who has ever read the book. I remember watching the tv miniseries with my grandfather in the early 1990's, when I was in my early teens. It wasn't until college that I realized the miniseries was based on books.

I haven't the time now, but am looking forward to returning to read your posts regarding the trilogy.

Poynorgraphics said...

Have to agree with you; never could understand why THE TOWN should be the one to be so honored. I've always found it tedious and mannered. I suspect that the strong conflict between old and new, young and old, had a good deal to do with it. But THE TREES was, in my opinion, by far the superior portion of the trilogy. I've found that many authors somehow become fascinated with one of their most uninteresting characters, and insist on dragging us all along on, oftentimes, a pretty tiresome ride.

Regarding the miniseries (sadly but necessarily greatly truncated) seeing it again after over thirty years; the main thing that strikes me is that Elizabeth Montgomery (admittedly a great favorite of mine) was rather limited in her actual reading of lines; but what a silent actress she would have made! Everything is there, in the face, the movement, the posture-she really had no need at all of dialogue.

Robert Graves said...

Does anybody know where in Ohio The Awakening Land stories unfold? Champaign and Clark counties are possibilities, and Springfield (in Clark County)has the feel of an Americus. I'll appreciate your help. Thank you.

Amos Bailey said...

i would love to find out where at myself i know it has to be close to chilicoffie