In a prologue, Thornton Wilder sets forth the external facts of the conviction of John Ashley in 1902 for the murder of Breckenridge Lansing, his subsequent rescue by five masked men shortly before his scheduled execution, and his escape to parts unknown. Then, in six long chapters, the novel moves backward and forward in time to explore the background of the Ashley and Lansing families, their relationships to the community, and their reactions to these bizarre events.
The Ashleys and Lansings live at opposite ends of the main street of a depressed southern Illinois coal-mining town. By hiring Ashley, a creative tinkerer, Lansing props up the faltering mine, which he has been incompetently managing, and leaves himself free for the social life which interests him more. At a weekend get-together of the two families, while the men are practicing with rifles, a bullet kills Lansing. Unjust town gossip linking Ashley and Eustacia Lansing in an affair and the absence of any other plausible suspect creates an atmosphere prejudicial to Ashley. Following his conviction and mysterious rescue, the novel details Ashley’s flight down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and eventually to South America. Knowing that copper-mining engineers are needed in Chile, he acquires a new identity as James Tolland, a Canadian engineer. In South America, he establishes a reputation as a hard worker and active humanitarian. When, three years after his escape from the law, a bounty hunter succeeds in identifying him, Ashley flees, and shortly before the middle of the book the fugitive drowns...
(The entire section is 645 words.)