Annie Dillard develops the first half of the book by focusing on the individual sagas of single characters, family groups, or thematically linked pairs of characters. Each subsequent section also moves forward in time in terms of the waves of settlers who come to Bellingham Bay. Each of these introductory sections gives a history of how individuals related to the land upon their arrival, and how their characters and relationships developed as they encountered new hardships in the strange landscape.
Ada Fishburn, who is depicted in the first section, survives until the end of the novel, although the focus will shift to her sons and their generation. She is marked primarily by memories of loss—of her children and husband—and by her progress in accepting the native inhabitants and their ways as familiar. Dillard often presents Ada’s character in third-person omniscient narration; sometimes, she shows Ada’s emotional response to a scene. Ada is an intrepid pioneer and admirable survivor.
John Ireland Sharp, who is depicted in the second section, has ties to both the East and the West, and he is simultaneously an orphan and a man with historical roots in Whatcom. An educator who is greatly moved by the plight of the Chinese in America, John in his early years devotes himself to liberal social causes. His character is defined primarily by the events that shape him and his response to duties placed on him. Ironically, he becomes hermetic by...
(The entire section is 444 words.)