A novel idea: what was in the minds of pioneers

May 24, 1992|By Rebecca W. Boylan

THE LIVING. Annie Dillard. HarperCollins.

416 pages. $22.50. Novels about what happened to America's pioneers are plentiful. Novels about what America's pioneers thought about are far fewer. Annie Dillard, the author of such nonfiction works as the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," has written her first novel, "The Living," about Puget Sound's earliest settlements -- the American Indians, Asians, Europeans, Canadians and white settlers who merged there.

Farmers, miners, hermits, murderers, mothers, shopkeepers, fishermen, realists and idealists, the mad and the sane -- all these are portrayed not only as themselves but also as representatives of the strong and weak, the misguided and perceptive, and the stagnant and expansive.

Annie Dillard's strengths as master of words, characters and storytelling are nurtured here. The first half of the novel reads like several short stories sewn together by common characters who take turns as major figures and supporting actors. Tragedy and hardship abound with relentless energy. But Ms. Dillard's understatement and detachment as narrator allow her history to be recorded and suffered gallantly by her characters.

The reader thus is vicariously and simultaneously winded and set upright by Fate's blow. In "The Living," Ms. Dillard perceives that hardship, more than good luck, companionship or faith, is what pushes these struggling pioneers forward. Burying a husband and several children, losing all financial investment in an uncertain infant economy or facing mad lawlessness in a civilization not yet prepared to offer legal protection -- these were daily challenges that changed one reality inside and yet didn't deter one's plan and action. None of Ms. Dillard's characters considers returning "home," as it is home they seek in coming to the land of giant firs, restless waters, rainy winter and mountain sunsets.

The novel is divided into seven sections tracing the birth, settlement, growth, financial boom and panic of Washington's Puget Sound from 1855 to 1897. The first four chapters center on certain characters: the Fishburns, John Ireland, Eustace and Minta, and Obenchain and Clare. The fifth focuses on the growth of the community in its heyday. Chapter six centers on the panic that comes when these characters' largess is threatened, and the last chapter carries them beyond the downfall.

Members of the new generation have inherited their parents' courage to brave new worlds. A young man, embracing courtship and the start of his medical career, is swinging on a rope above a pond. He "hitched up on the knot and launched out. As he swung through the air trembling he saw the blackness give way below, like a parting of clouds, to a deep patch of stars on the ground. It was the pond, he hoped, the hole in the woods reflecting the sky. He judged the instant and let go; he flung himself loose into the stars."

If there is a main character, it is Clare Fishburn, the third son of Ada and Rooney, whom we meet at the novel's beginning on the last leg of their journey west. On their way, their second son, age 3, tumbled out of the wagon and was trampled to death by its monstrous wheels.

Rooney himself dies prematurely when poisoned by natural gases he unearths when digging a wall. Ada buries a daughter, in addition to her son and husband. She raises her two remaining sons, remarries, buries a second husband, takes care of the homeless settlers on Puget Sound's beaches, and helps raise her granddaughter before she dies, ancient and full.

Clare's importance is due to his evolution from nonchalant and self-important to visionary and selfless. This comes, ironically, from looking death in the face. One Christmas Eve at midnight, Clare receives a visit from the mad hermit, Obenchain, who whispers to him, "I'm going to kill you." His plan is not to kill Clare but to own him. For a while he does, but eventually it is another power that claims Clare, not Obenchain's.

Ms. Dillard's language is careful and beautiful as she captures human fragility in the midst of courage. Her story brings peaceful reassurance about the gift of endurance despite violent tragedy.

Ms. Boylan is a writer who lives in the Washington area.

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