The Awakening Land is not one novel but a trilogy—The Trees, The Fields, and The Town—that might as well have been a single volume because each picks up where the previous one left off. Conrad Richter tells of the transformation of a slice of the “Western” frontier (the Ohio Valley) from dense forest in the late 18th century (The Trees) to farming settlements (The Fields) to bustling town (The Town) in the Civil War period. He relates the story through the fictional Luckett family and especially Sayward Luckett, who is a teenager when she arrives in Ohio and in her 80s at the trilogy’s conclusion.
When the Lucketts move to the Ohio River Valley so that Sayward’s father can hunt game, they are the first settlers and must be totally self-sufficient. They clear the “big butts” (trees), build a cabin, hunt and forage for food while facing risks from wild animals, rattlesnakes, Indians, and the menacing forest itself. Sayward’s mother dies of consumption, and her father takes off when the youngest child, his favorite, is lost in the woods, leaving Sayward, the oldest, responsible for her siblings. The Trees ends with the illiterate Sayward’s improbable marriage to Portius Wheeler, a reclusive, intellectual lawyer from Massachusetts whose reason for being in Ohio is never explained. The Fields covers the raising of their nine children, Sayward’s carving out a farm, the expansion of the farm and of Portius’s law practice, and the growth of Moonshine Church, as the settlement is then called. In The Town, it grows into a flourishing community and is renamed Americus. Sawyard sees her children leave home and reluctantly accedes to Portius’s desire for a mansion in town. The trilogy doesn’t end with an unambivalent embrace of progress; Sayward feels some nostalgia for the old frontier days when people had more appreciation for work, and her long-lost father returns and gives some citizens an earful about what’s been lost with civilization.
Richter was a stickler for authenticity, from the details of the pioneer experience to language. He researched old manuscripts and letters to recreate the rustic speech of the 18th and early 19th centuries, which, he said, “should be recognized with its local variants as a living reminder of the great, early mother-tongue of pioneer America.” His other great achievement is the character of Sayward, who he no doubt intended to represent the women who were the backbones of pioneer settlements. Sayward is no-nonsense, stoic, the rock that holds her family together through illness, deaths, desertions, and Portius’s infidelity. The message of the importance of family comes through even as Sayward doesn’t fault the family members who leave and aren’t heard from.
Although it was The Town that won a Pulitzer Prize, The Trees may be the most fascinating for its unvarnished look at the hair-raising challenges the earliest pioneers confronted to survive. Life got easier for the Lucketts once they had neighbors.
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