In The Living—a book that took her three years to research and write—Dillard creates a tapestry of the American Frontier but set in an area not generally portrayed in novels: the Pacific Northwest. In her only novel to date, Dillard chronicles the lives of the people who settled at Whatcom on Bellingham Bay and built the town of Bellingham in what would later become the state of Washington. The book’s setting is one with which Dillard became personally acquainted while artist-in-residence at Western Washington State University in Bellingham.
The people in this novel are pioneers of the first order who struggle against so many difficulties that it seems unlikely that they should succeed. However, these people persist, even in the face of great odds. Moreover, because Dillard wished to create a novel in the spirit of nineteenth century novels, The Living is a “big” book, full of violence and murder, offering many plot threads and spanning several generations in its telling.
Besides being a departure from her usual forms in that it is a novel, The Living also marks a change in Dillard’s focus, from one sighted mostly on a solitary person to that which takes in multitudes. She accomplishes this breadth of perspective by creating four interconnected groups which each include various types of people: white, Chinese, and Lummi and Skagit Native Americans; rich and poor; hardworking and conniving; good and evil. In this manner the perspective of Dillard’s writing vision expands outward in a way different from her previous work; yet the result is the same: to explore people’s place in a vast and oftentimes unwelcoming or at least seemingly indifferent universe. In fact, Dillard makes a point of noting that she chose to make this shift to include others, to...
Based in part on Annie Dillard’s experience of the northern Washington landscape as she lived there from 1975 to 1980, The Living recounts the early days of several settlements on Bellingham Bay from 1855 to 1897. The historical epic traces the fortunes and vicissitudes of three fictional families—the Fishburns, the Honers, and the Sharps—through several generations as they negotiate with the landscape, with the native peoples, with Chinese immigrants, with new waves of settlers, and with ever-changing economic fortunes.
The Living is divided into six long sections, each focusing on a major character, family, or event; the book also includes a brief afterword. The stories are told in third-person omniscient narration, with many flashbacks into the thoughts and events of characters’ pasts. The epic weaves a tapestry of pattern and variation in the struggles of these early settling families.
The book begins dramatically, with the arrival by boat of Ada and Rooney Fishburn and their two remaining children, Clare and Glee, in Whatcom. The landscape is desolate, wet, and primitive. The heavy evergreen growth seems oppressive; the native inhabitants, primarily of the Lummi tribe, seem strange and exotic. All customary values seem irrelevant in this new land, and Ada obsessively remembers the losses, especially of her small son, Charley, that she had to endure to settle here.
Eventually, the children thrive, and the Fishburns begin to learn the joys of Northwest life. They both respond to the landscape—most notably to towering, snowcapped Mt. Baker—and set out to conquer the land, clearing away with fervor the dense evergreen growth. The native inhabitants become inextricably linked to the daily lives of the Fishburns, participating in sharing their lore and mechanisms for survival with the new settlers. Clare, who is of the first generation of white settlers to be reared here, feels marked for a heroic life. This section ends with Rooney’s death by poison gas as he is digging a new well.
Book 2 recounts the formation of the personality of John Ireland Sharp, primarily through his early experiences. As a young man, he participates in a scouting expedition into the Cascade Mountains to seek a route for the Northern Pacific Railroad. During this expedition, the party discovers the evidence of racial hatred and torture: The staked body of a Skagit tribe boy who had been cruelly used by the Thompson tribe. John gets beaten up by Beal Obenchain in a random act of tyranny; ironically, he later is adopted into the Obenchain family when his own family drowns. He witnesses Beal’s senseless killing of a newly born calf and the exhilaration it brings the bully. John, who has learned to love socialist causes while working in New York City, in Whatcom witnesses xenophobia in action. He comes to seek the pristine inspiration of the sight of Mt. Baker and prefer it to the cruelty he experiences among humans. The town’s economic situation becomes precarious when the train terminus is set for Tacoma rather than Whatcom; there is an immediate financial slump.
In book 3, Whatcom shrivels in the economic depression. The widow Ada Fishburn moves with her son Clare to Goshen, a neighboring settlement, and there they meet Minta and Eustace Honer. Goshen is a thriving farming community where Clare, now a tall and joyful man, lends a hand with Kulshan Jim, of the Nooksack tribe, to help Eustace with clearing more of the land for farming. Ada remarries, and all goes well until there is an enormous logjam on the Nooksack River. All citizens, native and new...