1941 Near Miss: The Trees by Conrad Richter

Plot Summary:

The Trees is a moving novel of the beginning of the American trek to the west. Toward the close of the eighteenth century, the land west of the Alleghenies and north of the Ohio River was an unbroken sea of trees. Beneath them the forest trails were dark, silent, and lonely, brightened only by a few lost beams of sunlight. Here, in the first novel of Conrad Richter’s Awakening Land trilogy, the Lucketts, a wild, woods-faring family, lived their roaming life, pushing ever westward as the frontier advanced and as new settlements threatened their isolation. This novel gives an excellent feel for America’s lost woods culture, which was created when most of the eastern midwest was a vast hardwood forest—virtually a jungle. The Trees conveys settler life, including conflicts with Native Americans, illness, hunting, family dynamics, and marriage.

My Thoughts:

My first, and until now, only, interaction with the works of Conrad Richter was in my 7th grade English class, in which Mr. Vardeman took us through his later novel, The Light in the Forest, a class that I find hard to forget, even 16 years later. While The Light in the Forest focused on the clash of cultures between Native Americans and European settlers in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, his novel The Trees follows a family who moves deeper into the uninhabited woods of Ohio, searching out game and a way of life, and watching settlement and society slowly grow around them over the years. The Trees forms the first part of what it called “The Awakening Trilogy” and is followed by The Fields and The Town, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1951.

The Trees follows Sayward Luckett, 15 years old when the novel opens, and the eldest daughter of Worth Luckett–a hunter, trapper, and woodsman. We are introduced to the family as they are hiking into the unsettled forest along the Ohio river with all their possessions on their backs as Worth leads them away from the settled areas where the game has run out, and deeper into the wilderness to make a new life for them. Sayward’s sickly mother and her four younger siblings (three sisters and a brother) round out the family as they select a site in the dense, dark forest and begin to make a life for themselves there. Over the coming years, the isolated cabin in the woods is joined by other settlers and the civilization Worth moved west to get away from slowly catches up with the Luckett family.

While this novel should presumably fit into the “poor, down on their luck family” story motif as it follows a family whose only possessions they carry on their backs as they make a new life for themselves, the family is not really down on their luck. There are definitely a few bad spells, and the family is not spared a number of disasters, but noticeably absent is the overpowering bad luck attributed to nature in the previous novels, and the continued ability of the family to live and thrive through everything that occurs. There are no floods or fires or droughts the Lucketts have to contend with, and though bad things happen to the family over the course of the novel, at no point do they ever seem “down on their luck.” Instead, The Trees gives us the story of settlement and family and community and the slow transformation of the wilderness into a way of life for a group of people. The tragedies, when they occur, seem less forced and more realistic, and the family, instead of defying all odds to improbably survive the hardships of their life instead have the strength and courage and knowledge and reliance upon each other to reasonably do well for themselves in the wilds of the forest, which I appreciated greatly.

In preparation for writing this novel, and its two sequels, Richter poured over old manuscripts, letters, and histories of the Ohio region in an attempt to capture the speech patterns and phrases and cadence of the original settlers along the Ohio river, and while the dialogue initially stands out and gives you pause, the more you get to know the characters and the setting, the more natural it feels, and you begin to fall into the cadence of the novel and its characters as you make your way through the story. And while he does at time describe the scenery and the woods and nature in great detail, the novel is a well-crafted and often concisely told story that skillfully allows the reader to fill in the gaps in such a way that the prose never feels simple or sparse. The characters are distinct and well-developed, very often complex instead of clichéd, and if there is one complaint I have about the novel it’s that the ending feels quite rushed, and the character Portius, who plays a large role in it, is noticeably absent through the majority of the book, despite being briefly introduced early on, so that he feels thrust into the plot almost as an afterthought. Although with two subsequent books about these characters, it’s entirely possible that some of the things that appear to be underdeveloped are treated more fully in the later novels.

On the whole, however, I quite enjoyed reading the book. It is a short, quick read that nonetheless provides a broad and fascinating view at a culture and way of life that had already disappeared a century and a half before Richter wrote his novel, and which in fact show signs of disappearing within the span of the novel itself. It is a look at an America which is long gone, yet still essentially a part of our national identity and history, a way of life that was critical to the development and creation of the subsequent cities and settlements that have led, over the centuries, to our life and culture as we know it now.

Favorite passage:

It was no ordinary day when the wild ground gave birth to its first tame crop. The wind stood off. The clouds hung like summer. The tender sky came right down in the clearing, softening everything with a veil finer than spider skeins. A little ways there in the woods, Sayward knew the air still hung chill and dim. But here in the clearing, the four sides of the forest held summer in like the banks of a pond. Flies and beetles hummed in the bright warmth. The soil breathed up a week rank smell of sprouting and growing. And here and yonder the first tiny green shoots of the baby corn had pushed overnight through the black ground. You could just make out the faint, mortal young rows bending around the stumps.

Why you should read it:

A quick, easy, and engrossing read that illuminates some of the aspects of pioneer life in the late eighteenth century without overly sensationalizing it, full of interesting and complex characters, even if it is at times, too short to do all of them they justice they likely deserve.

Currently reading: The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark and For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

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