Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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....
(The entire section is 742 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of The Living Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
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 entire section is 1479 words.)