Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 645
In a prologue, Thornton Wilder sets forth the external facts of the conviction of John Ashley in 1902 for the murder of Breckenridge Lansing, his subsequent rescue by five masked men shortly before his scheduled execution, and his escape to parts unknown. Then, in six long chapters, the novel moves backward and forward in time to explore the background of the Ashley and Lansing families, their relationships to the community, and their reactions to these bizarre events.
The Ashleys and Lansings live at opposite ends of the main street of a depressed southern Illinois coal-mining town. By hiring Ashley, a creative tinkerer, Lansing props up the faltering mine, which he has been incompetently managing, and leaves himself free for the social life which interests him more. At a weekend get-together of the two families, while the men are practicing with rifles, a bullet kills Lansing. Unjust town gossip linking Ashley and Eustacia Lansing in an affair and the absence of any other plausible suspect creates an atmosphere prejudicial to Ashley. Following his conviction and mysterious rescue, the novel details Ashley’s flight down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and eventually to South America. Knowing that copper-mining engineers are needed in Chile, he acquires a new identity as James Tolland, a Canadian engineer. In South America, he establishes a reputation as a hard worker and active humanitarian. When, three years after his escape from the law, a bounty hunter succeeds in identifying him, Ashley flees, and shortly before the middle of the book the fugitive drowns at sea.
The novel then traces the same period in Coaltown and in Chicago, where Roger Ashley goes to work in anonymity to help support his mother and sisters. The middle daughter, Sophia, encourages her mother to convert their home to a boardinghouse, which gradually prospers despite the obloquy of their situation as the family of an escaped convict. After energetically pursuing many humble jobs, Roger finds his metier in journalism, and his sister Lily discovers hers on the concert stage. Eventually, both succeed well enough to shed protective pseudonyms and proclaim their identity as children of the notorious Ashley.
After bringing both the Chilean and Illinois events forward to 1905, John Ashley and his family remaining mutually ignorant of one another’s circumstances, Wilder reverts to the year 1883, in New Jersey, the scene of Ashley’s courtship of Beata Kellerman, daughter of a prosperous Hoboken brewer, their elopement, and their later settlement in Coaltown. Before resolving the mystery, however (Wilder contrives that the reader suspects the identity of the killer long before the Ashleys do), another lengthy flashback describes the formation of the Lansing family, Breckenridge’s deficiencies as husband and father, and the consequent plight of the three Lansing children, especially George’s as the only son. This chapter tends to create sympathy for the Lansings, who are all victims in one way or another.
In the final chapter, dotted with brief anticipations of the subsequent lives of the two families, George, who had disappeared from home around the time of the murder and later fallen from a train and spent time in an insane asylum, returns and confesses to killing his father in defense of his afflicted mother. A sympathetic Russian-born neighbor, Olga Doubkov, arranges for George’s written confession and his escape to her own native land. Finally, the deacon of a small religious sect informs Roger that members of his congregation had daringly rescued his father to express their gratitude to the man who had helped them build their church.
The mystery surrounding Ashley is less important than Wilder’s conviction that the truth is complex, contrary to external appearances, and discoverable only in time. Thus, he organizes the novel to create in the reader not suspense but progressive insight into the minds and hearts of its characters, who themselves are following the path of discovery.
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