From the first pages of this epic debut novel by the author of the “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” we are thrillingly dropped into a time that stands in exact opposition to our own. We living at the end of this millennium have been made acutely aware of our imposition on a planet we’ve all but used up. Annie Dillard’s characters, settlers opening up the Pacific Northwest in the middle of the 19th Century, are conversely faced with abounding nature--dense, treacherous, daunting and capricious--that begs to be thrashed through, cut down, burnt out, brought to heel by these new arrivals, who view this unfettered landscape as both home and adversary.
Dillard focuses on the settlement of Whatcom and its environs on Bellingham Bay, high up in the northwesternmost corner of the country, a territory that will eventually become the state of Washington. Here cedars and firs choke the ground, grow so thick it takes a day to walk half a mile. The early white settlers--the Rushes and Fishburns and Sharps--come from the East and South, depleted by their long and arduous journeys. Ada and Rooney Fishburn have already lost a child along the way; their boy Charley “fell out of the wagon and their own wheels ran him over, one big wooden wheel after the other, and he burst inwardly and died.”
Soon others drop away--Lura Rush in a carriage accident, her oldest boy of “the putrid sore throat.” Rooney Fishburn falls dead on his spade in a well hole when he hits a pocket of lethal gas rather than the water he was looking for. Chot Harshaw is cut in two by a fall of slate from a coal mine roof. “Death mowed the generations raggedly, and out of order,” the book’s narrator informs matter-of-factly, often noting the passing of main characters in a mere phrase. “It was in May that the Sharp family met with an accident; they drowned, except for John Ireland.” Later, “It took three months to clear the logjam on the Nooksack and Eustace Honer drowned doing it.”
It is in great part by death that these living define themselves; they can’t help but be aware that time might run out on them at any moment. Living in the constant presence of peril brings on an exhilarating adrenaline rush. For both the men and the women, this is a great adventure, living on the brink of the new, making it up as they go along, living utterly in the present because so little of their past applies. Every day must be figured out from scratch.
These first arrivals live side-by-side with the friendly Lummi and Nooksack Indians, who are fascinated by their new neighbors, even as they are offended by their unwashed smell. “Neither (Ada) nor Lura could turn around in the house without bumping into a Lummi. The men walked in and watched them cook and clean without a word; they watched little Pearl sweep the floor as if she were a play on a stage.”
The settlers have come to farm, but first they must clear the land; their task was “to crack the dome of shade and try to help the sunlight down.” This is hard work, done with a man at either end of a 10-foot crosscut saw. “Everyone called a crosscut saw a misery whip. They dragged the misery whip through the pitchy wood so the teeth bit. Muscles moved all over their two backs like salmon in creeks.”
Though an indisputably hard life, it is a rewarding one, and those who come through it may have lost digits and limbs and family members, but can take as personal triumph their own endurance. And along the way, they become part of this strange new world, cut off from their own roots. Occasionally they are called upon to wonder how they might seem to the families they left behind in civilization. “Because her family was coming, Minta saw the scene with fresh eyes, and wondered if her mother, father, and June could aught to admire in her Indian friends--or in any of her friends, for that matter.”
Over the next 40 or so years, Whatcom lurches toward its own civilization, mostly in fits and starts, when one railroad or another seems likely to establish its terminus in the town, or when gold is discovered nearby. The population and prosperity flows in these times, then ebbs when the promise goes unfulfilled, when the vein is panned out. Fortunes are made and lost in a day, which, like the omnipresent specter of death, fosters a philosophic nature in those who stay.
For the first third or so of the book, the narrative rushes on at a breathless pace at the side of the settlers and their Indian friends, then slows suddenly to study the fortunes and reversals of two sons of founding families--Ada and Rooney’s son Clare Fishburn and the lone survivor of the Sharp family, John Ireland--one an easygoing man of the moment, the other brooding and out of step with the nonchalance required in these parts. Although they and their wives and children and friends are interesting enough, and although Dillard fashions a sort of plot around a death threat made to Claire by Beal Obenchain, a deranged hermit who lives in the hollowed-out trunk of a giant tree, the novel’s early chapters provide an act that’s almost impossible to follow. Too soon the characters begin looking back over their shoulders and the book becomes nostalgic for its own immediate past.
Still, particularly for a first novel, “The Living” is an impressive piece of fiction and a riveting hunk of history. Dillard has clearly researched time and place, used language of the period and peppered her fictive world with real characters such as Tommy Cahoon, a Pullman conductor whose head “looked like glossy wax or frozen rags, red and yellow; the bright puckers and slicks started above his eyebrows and ears and extended halfway down the back of his head, above a fringe of hair. The Sioux had scalped him, years ago, when he was fishing in a creek near Cheyenne, Wyoming.”
And the many readers who have been drawn in the past to Dillard’s work for its elegant and muscular use of language won’t be disappointed in these pages, where she has given herself a landscape large enough to challenge her talents, then meets it on nearly every page, capturing this fierce and beautiful place with pen in place of crosscut saw, as in passages like this:
“The light was quitting the village like a vapor dispersing; the river still held a frail, cold pallor as if water itself shone; the gravel bars banked it. Above the river the sky was a slash of blue where planets swam between the black forest walls.”
In the end, the reader feels at least a shadow of what Ada Fishburn Tawes does at the end of her long life. “She took part in the great drama. It had been her privilege to peer into the deepest well hole of life’s surprise. She felt the fire of God’s wild breath on her face.”