A big celebration is held in Raintree County, Indiana, on July 4, 1892. The birthday of the nation is noted with the usual parades and fireworks, and everyone is excited that Indiana senator Garwood Jones is returning to his hometown to make a speech. Among those who greet the senator is his old friend and rival John Wickliff Shawnessy, who once opposed Jones for political office and lost. As Shawnessy experiences the events of the day, his mind wanders back to other times.
Shawnessy remembers growing up in Raintree County, the son of T. D. Shawnessy, a physician and preacher, and Ellen Shawnessy, a wise and gentle woman. John’s early life is haunted by the legend of the raintree, a magic tree with yellow flowers that is rumored to grow somewhere in the county. Most of the county is easy to travel over, so the most likely place for the fabulous raintree to be hidden is deep in a swamp at the end of a lake in the middle of the county. John vows that he will find the raintree some day. He also has another dream of writing a great epic that will encapsulate and explain not only Raintree County but also the American republic.
John’s adolescence is affected by three people. Jerusalem Webster Stiles, known as the Perfessor, establishes an academy that young Johnny Shawnessy attends, along with his friends Garwood Jones and Nell Gaither. The Perfessor is only a few years older than his students, and he has a cynical, worldly-wise attitude that frequently puts him in conflict with his fellow citizens and occasions a debate with the more optimistic Shawnessy that lasts a lifetime. Garwood is a smoother self-promoter than the Perfessor; he knows how to manipulate people, telling them what they want to hear. Even as a youth he is well on his way to a successful career in politics. Nell Gaither is a spirited blond beauty with whom John is deeply in love. She loves him too, but each is too shy to approach the other. John and Nell communicate only through vague hints and inscriptions in books that they give each other. John’s love for Nell is made permanent when he sees her naked, rising from the lake; Nell later reveals that she knew he was there that day.
The day of John’s graduation from the Perfessor’s academy is packed with excitement. When John has his graduation picture taken, he meets in the photographer’s studio a beautiful visitor from the South, Susanna Drake. After the graduation ceremony, everyone goes to the lake, and John and Nell (who is apart for once from her usual escort, Garwood) are about to consummate their love...
(The entire section is 1050 words.)