Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1509
The first novel of the quintet, Prisons, is set in mid-seventeenth century England. From babyhood, Jonathan Church has been torn between his loyalty to his mother’s dour Puritanism and the appealing warmth of his young aunt, Nell Cockburn Lacy, who presides over a Royalist festival atmosphere at Lacy House. Jonathan’s mother has married a self-made man who has no love for the aristocracy; her younger sister, Jonathan’s aunt, married Sir Valentine Lacy, who does not question the right of his kind to govern an unchanging England. When Jonathan is sixteen, he discovers that his father can be heartless. He self-righteously judges and defies his father and leaves his home. Taking refuge at Lacy House, he encounters Nell, who is weeping over her elderly, dying husband. Her grief for Sir Valentine, her pity for young Jonathan, and the love she and her nephew have always felt for each other combine in some unforgettable hours, which result in Jonathan’s only descendant, a supposed son of Sir Valentine. The narrative begins as a confession at the point of death by Jonathan, now twenty, and the main story line traces his disillusionment as he learns that the Parliament forces, ostensibly fighting for freedom, are themselves as repressive as the Royalists and that the ambitious men who rule them are not only as tyrannical as the king’s men but hypocritical as well, mouthing prayers as they use and discard, sacrifice and execute the ordinary men who follow them in fear or in hope. To break the democratic spirit which the ordinary soldiers have developed, Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the Parliament forces, and his subordinates resolve to execute a number of ringleaders, Jonathan among them. Because of Jonathan’s youth and his substantial family, however, Cromwell is willing to spare the boy if he will agree to influence the troops as the leaders wish. Jonathan cannot desert his friends or his principles. He and his friend Thankful Perkins are among the young men with dreams who are murdered by the old men who have only ambitions. Like Prisons, O Beulah Land places its characters in the midst of violent conflict—in this case, the French and Indian War and the continuing Indian resistance against the settlers. In the prologue, Hannah Bridewell, a transported thief and prostitute, survives capture by the Indians and a long period in the wilderness, to appear at last at the cabin of the squatter Jeremiah Catlett, who saves her life and eventually marries her in the informal manner of a frontier to which the law and the church have not yet come. Moving backward in time, the novel follows Hannah and “Squire” Josiah Devotion Raglan from crime and prison in England to what amounts to sale in Virginia, a colony ruled by wealthy planters such as Jonathan Lacey, who leaves his young wife, Sally, to march toward Fort Duquesne with his own Provincial forces and with the British regulars. Hannah and Squire Raglan accompany their new masters on this venture, and the Squire’s theft of a tomahawk, along with the arrogant bad manners of the English commander, so anger the Indians that an ambush and a massacre result. After her captivity, Hannah escapes, as the prologue revealed. The Squire’s final act of rascality, some years later, results in his quite justifiable murder by Jeremiah Catlett. Jonathan Lacey and his spoiled young wife Sally venture west, along with Jarcey Pentacost, a printer whose passion for freedom has cost him his shop. Sally refuses to adjust to frontier life, treating her neighbors with contempt, and Jonathan begins to regard her as a stranger instead of the friend and wife for whom he had wished. Finally, a rough frontier prank at the wedding of the gently reared daughter of Jonathan and Sally, Sara Lacey, results in Sally’s madness. At the end of the novel, however, Sara evidences not only great love for her husband, Ezekiel, the son of the lower-class Catletts, but also great courage. Unlike her mother, she is worthy of Beulah Land. Like O Beulah Land, Know Nothing traces the social and financial histories of various family units in a society still in flux—in this case, torn by differences on the issue of slavery as well as by differences between the values of the frontier in western Virginia and the values of the settled East. To prosperous Peregrine Lacey Catlett come Brandon and Sally Lacey, who are rich in land and slaves but unable to meet their obligations. When Brandon takes the gentleman’s way out, Sally becomes a permanent fixture, glorying in her heredity. Other women who need the social status only a man can provide must compromise. Bitter Annie Brandon sleeps with Big Dan O’Neill, becomes pregnant, marries him, and spends years attempting to civilize him. Melinda Lacey, rejected as a wife for Peregrine’s son, Johnny Catlett, by Johnny’s mother, Leah Catlett, marries a wealthy man but finds life without Johnny so unhappy that she wills her own death. Without her, Johnny takes a slave girl and unwittingly causes the death of the girl’s husband, Johnny’s devoted servant. As aristocrats and new immigrants, rich and poor, become involved in this mating dance, the differences on the issue of slavery split existing families. Peregrine Lacey Catlett comes to despise his son Lewis, an abolitionist like his mother Leah. In her pity for him, Sara Lacey marries Lewis, who stifles her sweet and happy personality with his grim preoccupations. Returning from his escape to the West, Johnny takes up his father’s duties as farmer, slave owner, and protector of women and in the final pages of the book joins the Confederate army to fight in a war that he knows will be lost, hoping only that he will not have to kill his unionist brother Lewis. The next novel in the quintet, The Scapegoat, traces the defeat of friendship and decency in the conflict between mine operators and workers. In the middle of the conflict are Beverley and Ann Eldridge Lacey, decent people who hope that their mine can avoid the violence being urged by the operators of British-owned mines and their hired detectives and thugs on one hand and union agitators on the other. The presence of their daughters Lily Ellen Lacey, Mary Rose Lacey, and Ann Althea Lacey prevents an attack on their home, and for a time it seems that Beverley’s friendship with Jake Catlett, on whose property the strikers are living, will prevent the threatened violence. Yet those who hunger for a confrontation take advantage of the idealism of Lily, whose friendship with Eduardo Pagano, a young Italian striker, is deliberately misinterpreted by the war lover Captain Daniel Chester Neill and made the excuse for an attack on the strikers’ camp, to the delight of the union agitator, who will use the event for her own purposes. To protect her son Eddie, Annunziata Pagano permits the new immigrant Carlo Michele to be killed in Eddie’s place. Even the conspiracy between the well-intentioned Neville Roundtree, Lily, and Beverley to rescue Eddie is tainted by the fact that a human scapegoat makes Eddie’s escape possible. The Killing Ground, the final novel in the quintet, brings the middle-aged writer Hannah McKarkle to her home, Canona, West Virginia, so that she can at last understand the life and death of her brother Johnny McKarkle. (At the beginning of the book, set eighteen years after Johnny’s death, Hannah has returned to Canona for a lecture.) There is no mystery about the facts; in 1960, Hannah had been called home by Johnny and had learned immediately after his death that it was the result of a brawl in a jail cell where he had been thrown with other drunks. That Jake Catlett knocked him down Hannah has known ever since the event; that the death resulted from Johnny’s hitting his head against a bench in the fall makes it clear that there was no premeditation. The central section of the book details these events. In the first section, set in 1978, Hannah is seeking more complex answers to much deeper questions. As she talks to clubwomen such as Kitty Puss Baseheart, as she gossips about meaningless lives such as that of the womanizer Charlie Bland, as she sees dried-up Thelma Leftwich, a “good” woman who found no happiness in her hopeless love for Johnny, and as she visits the old family home with her aunt, Ann Althea Lacey Neill, the widow of the war-lover Captain Neill of The Scapegoat, Hannah tries to find a pattern in human history. Because Hannah McKarkle is Mary Settle’s alter ego (Hannah is referred to in the novel as the author of the four previous books of The Beulah Quintet), it is logical that in the two years after her 1978 visit to Canona she would visit all the places of quintet significance, including the churchyard where Jonathan Church was shot in 1649. Her conclusions come in the epilogue, set in 1980.