Annie Dillard’s writing is difficult to classify. Indeed, readers often gain a far greater knowledge of subjects such as history, theology, natural science, and ethnography from reading her works, fiction as well as nonfiction. The influence of Dillard’s masterpiece Pilgrim at Tinker Creek pervades her fiction, and the inseparability of nature and humanity is a central premise in Dillard’s oeuvre. One of the central characters in The Living, Clare Fishburn, simply could not exist without Washington’s Bellingham Bay. The landscape, the place itself, defines him. Similarly, Lou Maytree, one of the primary characters in The Maytrees, would lose depth and definition entirely without Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay.
James Joyce’s 1907 short-story masterpiece “The Dead” comes to mind when reading Dillard’s The Living, which was first written as a short story. In Joyce’s story, no one actually dies, but the characters are Dublin’s “walking dead.” In The Living, many of the unforgettable characters face horrific deaths from disease, drowning, and natural disaster, but they lived full lives. They had lived with the vital life force inherent in the early American settlers who forged west into Whatcom’s gigantic forest on Bellingham Bay in Washington State.
Spanning the second half of the nineteenth century, Dillard’s elegant novel is made up of five sections. It begins with the story of as-strong-as-steel pioneers Ada and Rooney Fishburn, who travel over mountain passes and deserts to the Pacific Northwest. On the way, they lose a child, and soon after their arrival, Ada loses Rooney, who dies while digging a well. They are followed by the next wave of settlers, Minta and Eustace Honer, who decide to shun their stifling wealthy lives of leisure in Baltimore and buy farming land in Washington State. Similarly, Eustace will die young, caught in a logjam. Minta’s house burns down with her babies inside and she, in turn, adopts three Native American children and turns her land into a profitable hops ranch. The new family lives among the gentle Lummi and Nansook Indians, who befriend them, nurture them, and eventually marry them.
The next generation of families consists of Clare Fishburn, who enjoys life to the fullest, and June Randell, Minta’s wealthy sister from the East who comes west to visit and decides to stay. They provide for their families in periods of great economic growth, but also when the banks fail and they lose everything except their cows.
The Living is also a celebration of the natural world, which includes human nature. To illustrate, Dillard shows that, in the realm of nature, humans are vulnerable, given that their skeletons are inside their bodies;...
(The entire section is 1149 words.)