In THE WATERS OF KRONOS, Conrad Richter told the imaginatively conceived and poetically textured story of one man’s journey back to the lost times and landmarks of his youth, to remembrances recalled but now beyond his physical reach. For Unionville, the Pennsylvania community of his boyhood had been buried under the waters of a great hydroelectric dam, just as the years of his early life have been covered by the deep wash of time. What John Donner discovered at the end of that quietly told but deeply moving novel is the secret of his own mortality, the realization of how much in life is wasted and sad, how much that is beautiful and good is never recognized until it is past recall. In the end, man’s death, half-welcomed and half-feared, is joined to his beginning, far back in the years of childhood and the place of his origins.
Although separate and complete in itself, THE WATERS OF KRONOS hinted at further disclosures in the Donner family, particularly of the father to whom John Donner, dying, becomes reconciled, and of the mother with whom a reunion has been promised. A SIMPLE HONORABLE MAN does extend the story of the Donners but on a different level of action and presentation. The earlier novel relied for much of its effect on time fantasy and suggestions from ancient myths. In this novel, however, the treatment is straightforward in chronology and structure.
The epigraph, taken from a letter by James Joyce, sets forth Richter’s intentions to present a man of simplicity and honor. In THE WATERS OF KRONOS, there are hints that the younger John Donner never really understood his father and that there had been some kind of friction between them. A lack of understanding also appears in the relationship of father and son in this novel, but only because the boy cannot share his father’s firm and joyous belief in the everlasting goodness of God. In the end, the father’s example overwhelms, even if it never quite succeeds in erasing, his son’s belief that the church maintains its authority by the “dark, theocratic gloom” of such phrases as “holiness,” “original sin,” “the blood of the lamb,” and “eternal damnation.” Words like these had chilled John Donner when he was a boy. To Harry Donner, however, church is a citadel of strength, and he lives the life of a clergyman with all the devotion of his passionate mind and heart. In his dealings with his fellows and with God he is, as his son eventually sees him, a simple, unselfish, honorable man.
Harry Donner’s way of grace is not easy. He is almost forty, married, and the father of three sons when, about the turn of the century, he feels an irresistible call to the ministry. His father-in-law, the austere old clergyman whom John Donner calls Pap-pa, tries to dissuade him. Harry Donner is too old for such a step; he is a family man; he can never hope to obtain a charge in one of the better churches; he has his general store in Unionville and ought to be satisfied with the life he has. In the face of these arguments, however, he remains...
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