The Living (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Annie Dillard’s first novel, The Living, marks a dramatic departure from her earlier work. As essayist, naturalist, autobiographer, and poet, she has been noted for her intensely personal narrative essays and nonfiction works, such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974). In The Living, she has discarded the introspective, confessional style in favor of an impersonal, third-person narration that allows her to tell the story of the early settlers in Bellingham Bay, Washington Territory, during the first generation of settlement, from 1855 to 1897. The result is a grand historical novel in the nineteenth century style.
In The Living, Dillard traces the interconnected lives of five pioneer families that settled in Whatcom, on Bellingham Bay, ninety miles north of Seattle, in Washington Territory. Her characters—the Fishburns, the Sharps, the Irelands, the Honers, and the Obenchains—are vividly and intensely drawn. Although her characters are for the most part fictional, Dillard emphasizes the historical accuracy of her portraits, concentrating on accurate details of dress, speech, and local customs. As she indicates in her preface, Dillard’s novel recounts the story of the settlement of the four linked communities located on Bellingham Bay—Whatcom, Old Bellingham, Sehome, and Fairhaven—that were consolidated in 1904 to form the city of Bellingham. The novel is divided into seven major...
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The Living (Magill Book Reviews)
In her first novel, THE LIVING, Annie Dillard traces the interconnected lives of five pioneer families who settled in Whatcom, on Bellingham Bay, ninety miles north of Seattle, in Washington state. Most of Dillard’s characters—the Fishburns, the Sharps, the Irelands, the Honers, and the Obenchains—are fictional, but she introduces some historical characters as well, notably Jim Hill and Frederick Weyerhaeuser.
THE LIVING captures the spirit of the first generation of settlement in the Pacific Northwest from about 1855 through 1897. The early Northwest settlers were hopeful and optimistic, despite the terrible hardships of pioneer life. The Lummi and Nooksack tribes helped the settlers adjust to their new life in the great fir and hemlock forests along Bellingham Bay. Gold mining, real estate, timber, and railroads fueled a book and bust economic cycle that led to a rise and fall of the region’s hopes.
Dillard does not spare the hardships of the pioneer life. Virtually every family suffered some loss from accidents, disease, or fire, sometimes leaving orphaned children to fend for themselves. Despite incidents of frontier violence, exemplified by Beal Obenchain, whose xenophobia leads him to murder a Chinese immigrant worker, Dillard stresses the independence and resourcefulness of the survivors. John Ireland Sharp, orphaned when his family drowns in Bellingham Bay, makes his way east to be educated at Oberlin College, then returns to...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The Living is based on a short story of the same title which Annie Dillard wrote in 1978. The novel is arranged into seven “books”; each of the first three focuses on a family that comes to settle in Whatcom. As the novel progresses, the families’ lives become increasingly intertwined. Each book contains chapters titled by date and location, showing the importance of time and place in this work of historical fiction. Although the original story focused on Obenchain’s death threat to Clare Fishburn, the novel features several strong women characters who are memorable for their emotional and physical stamina.
As a work of historical realism, The Living is primarily concerned with the settlement of Bellingham Bay and the village of Whatcom. Dillard’s work is full of historically accurate facts (including some of the characters) and vivid details of nineteenth century pioneer life, but the author has also created a vast array of lifelike characters. The action of the novel spans forty years and follows the growth of the settlement and the lives of several generations of its families. Historical events— Indian wars and the removal of local tribes to reservations, real-estate booms and busts, gold rushes in British Columbia and Alaska, the growth of the railroad and timber industries—provide the backdrop for the novel’s main action: the struggles, hardships, and successes of Whatcom’s first inhabitants.
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The Living shows the importance of women in the history of western settlement. Dillard’s women characters are strong and capable; they survive innumerable tragedies and hardships and are the most impressive of “the living.” They are able farmers and businesswomen, competent housekeepers, and loving wives and mothers. The Living can be viewed in the tradition of literature that realistically portrays women on the frontier-a tradition that includes Caroline Kirkland’s A New Home—Who’ll Follow? (1839), Willa Cather’s My Ántonia (1918) and Oh! Pioneers (1913), and the work of Gertrude Atherton. Yet Dillard’s novel comes long after the settlement of the frontier; in The Living, Dillard re-creates women’s experience not only out of available factual information but also out of her own very rich imagination.
Dillard does not sentimentalize women’s role in the settlement of the West, for her female characters are neither exclusively the moral voices of the novel nor of infallible character. She presents issues such as women’s suffrage and the temperance movement—the two primary movements that involved women in the late nineteenth century—as important to her women characters, yet these activist concerns are by no means their primary interests.
Like all Dillard’s work, The Living is concerned with the necessity to live life to its fullest, to endure sacrifices...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Albin, C. D. “What the Living Know in Bellingham Bay.” The Christian Century 109 (October 7, 1992): 871-873. Focusing on the omnipresence of death and hardship in the novel, Albin sees the characters’ responses to the land as an education in how to accept the random irony of suffering. Albin praises Dillard’s techniques for revealing the inner lives of the characters. This is an admiring review, which ultimately decides that readers are strengthened by participating in the epic struggle.
Ames, Katrine. Review of The Living, by Annie Dillard. Newsweek 119 (June 8, 1992): 57. An enthusiastic review. Ames focuses on the authentic effect of the nineteenth century writing style that Dillard emulates. She compares Dillard to E. L. Doctorow in terms of the romantic sweep of the novel.
Davis, Hope Hale. “The Trials of Puget Sound.” The New Leader 75 (August 10, 1992): 17-19. In this review essay, Davis praises the vivid detail and immediacy of The Living and the psychological complexity of its characters.
DiConsiglio, John. “Annie Dillard.” Literary Cavalcade 50 (March, 1998): 22. DiConsiglio examines Dillard’s family background, career highlights, literary style, and major published works. Although this essay does not specifically address The Living, it does...
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