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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1733

First published: 1946

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Regional romance

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Locale: Northwest Territory, later Ohio

Principal Characters:

Sayward Wheeler, a woods woman

Portius, her husband

Genny Scurrah, her sister

Wyitt Luckett, her brother

Resolve, ,

Guerdon ,...

(The entire section contains 1733 words.)

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First published: 1946

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Regional romance

Time of work: Early nineteenth century

Locale: Northwest Territory, later Ohio

Principal Characters:

Sayward Wheeler, a woods woman

Portius, her husband

Genny Scurrah, her sister

Wyitt Luckett, her brother

Resolve, ,

Guerdon, ,

Kinzie, ,

Sulie, ,

Huldah, ,

Sooth, ,

Libby, ,

Dezia, and

Mercy, her children

Jake Tench, a white runner

Mistress Bartram, a schoolteacher

Judah Macwhirter, a neighbor

The Story

Portius Wheeler's family had written from Boston to the trader at the post near Sayward's cabin to inquire about the woodsy girl Portius was living with. Sayward told the trader to write back that she was a woods girl, all right, and she could not read or write, that she had married Portius legally even if the ceremony had taken place while Portius was drunk, but that she was not keeping him from returning to the Bay State because she had not known that his family had written Portius to come home. She said Portius could have gone back if he had had a mind to, but since he wanted to remain she was staying with him.

Genny helped Sayward when the Wheelers' first boy was born. At that time, Portius had gone on business to the territory seat. He was away for days. Knowing he was no woodsman, Sayward remembered stories of Indian atrocities along the trace. When he finally came home, he would not look at his son, but in his powerful voice told Sayward that the Chillicothe convention had ratified the constitution. Now they lived in Ohio State. He warmed so to his subject of politics and government in the wilderness that he scared the baby, who yelled until Portius had to look at his son. It was a question of who was the more scared, father or child. Sayward thought Portius should get used to children because she intended to fill the cabin with them.

The handiest meeting place the neighbors had when a circuit rider came around was a sawmill, open to the sky and hemmed in by trees, but Sayward felt that the Lord knew it was His place when folks gathered there. Genny felt His presence too as she sang the hymns, with her beautiful voice reaching out farther than any other. Sayward could not believe it was Genny singing; that was the first time Genny had sung since her husband, Louie Scurrah, went off to the English lakes with her sister Achsa. Portius, a disbeliever, refused to go to the meeting, but Sayward took her son with her and had him christened Resolve.

Sayward had three boys and a girl by the time their township was formed. On Old Christmas, Portius asked everybody in the settlement to come to his cabin to make out a taxing list. That was what Sayward liked, a lot of people in the house, particularly in winter when a body was not apt to see neighbors often. They made a party of it. By the time the men worked out the taxing list, everybody realized that their township was a reality.

Sayward named her first girl for her lost sister Sulie. Sayward's Sulie was the liveliest and brightest child she had ever seen, but she never forgot the tokens she had had before Sulie was born. Resolve thought he had seen a strange little black boy, all dressed in white, peeking in the window. The day before Sulie was born, Resolve saw his first black man, a new hired man in the settlement. He could not stop talking about Caesar's color. When her blonde baby girl came, Sayward could only sigh with relief. Sulie was burned to death when she was about three years old. Resolve, seeing her charred body in the coffin, pulled at his mother's skirts to show her that it was not their Sulie lying there but the black boy who had peeked in the window.

The farmers complained so much about night dogs and other wild animals getting their stock that they banded together for one big hunt. Men, closing in from four sides, chased the animals down into a low place called the Sinks. There they fired on the beasts until nothing moved. Wyitt, with a new rifle much like Louie's, joined in the hunt. Later on, he realized that there would be no more game left in the woods, and he decided to follow his father and head west. He hated not saying good-bye to Sayward, but he was afraid she might keep him on the farm if he did.

The winter Sayward had five children living and one dead followed a cold summer when the crops could not grow. No one had enough meal to last. Portius took Resolve with him into Kentucky when a number of the men from the settlement went there to get meal on credit. The men were gone so long that Sayward had no food left for the children. Weak because she had fed the young ones instead of herself, she went out and shot a turkey, though she could barely hold the gun. Resolve did not come back with Portius. He had broken his leg and had to stay in Kentucky.

The next time the circuit rider came around, the sawmill had been deserted and sprouts had grown up to stand between the meeting folk and the preacher. Sayward gave a piece of land, near the burying ground where Jary and Sulie lay, for a meeting house. When the men built it, she could see it from her doorstep.

The day Resolve came home, he went with his father to Judah MacWhirter's. Jude had been wolf-bitten by a slobbering night dog that he caught in his cattle pen. Three weeks later, his fits had begun. Between times he was rational and wanted Portius to help him make a will. The night Resolve was there, Jude had to be tied to his bed because his fits were coming faster. Resolve never forgot Jude's dying after begging someone to kill him before he hurt anyone he loved.

Portius and the children wanted Sayward to sell her place and move to the new town upriver, but she could not leave her fields. Instead, she persuaded Portius to start a school, primarily because Resolve wanted so much to learn that he deliberately broke his leg again to have time to read. Portius kept school for a year until his law practice in Tateville grew so large that he spent a good deal of time there. About that time, Sayward decided that seven living children were enough and she was not sleeping with Portius.

The children heard that Portius was seeing the new lady schoolteacher who had taken over his school, but they could not tell Sayward. When Mistress Bartram hurriedly married Jake Tench, Sayward insisted upon going to the wedding because she felt sorry for a girl who had to get married and who was obviously not marrying her child's father. Genny told Sayward that folks were saying Portius was the father.

She worked out her feeling of shame without saying anything to Portius. When Sayward's baby Mercy was small, Jake had a celebration for his keelboat, the first built in the township. Sayward, hating to face Jake's wife with the baby that filled the gap between Dezia and Mercy, could not stay home. She had heard that Jake's wife seldom left her cabin, but she was surprised not to find her at Jake's party.

Riding down the river on the keelboat, Sayward realized that a real town was springing up along the river. Now her children no longer deviled her about moving to Tateville, and Portius, after making a fine speech in honor of Jake's industry, was solicitous of her comfort on the boat ride.

Critical Evaluation:

The second novel in Conrad Richter's trilogy, THE FIELDS expresses how progress is made in the Ohio pioneer settlement in the cultivation of farmland that had been dense forest; in the maturing of Sayward, emotionally and mentally; and in the growth of the Wheeler family and the settlement near their cabin. The making of a settlement and town from wilderness is Richter's recurrent theme, and he has researched pioneer life thoroughly so that his descriptions are accurate. Sayward's remembrances of the forest land and her comparisons of it to the new settlement add a vivid and personal touch to the historical account of the town's evolution.

Character development is as important in this novel as in THE TREES. The personalities of Sayward's children are described primarily through Sayward's inner thoughts as she compares each one to Portius, to one of her brothers or sisters, or to herself. She begins to see how family and community circumstances together shape the characters of children.

In the community Portius represents education, sharp wit, and political awareness. He is the humorist and the proponent of progress. In his own sly way, Portius ridicules the church, the people's ignorance, the sawmill, and sometimes even his own wife. His views add a new perspective to the events surrounding community expansion.

The marriage relationship between Sayward and Portius is based on mutual respect for the other's skills and intelligence. Each has an independent streak: Sayward reveals hers in stubbornness when her principles are threatened; Portius displays his physically by leaving home occasionally. He also manifests his independence in an episode of adultery, which results in the strongest conflict Sayward has had in her marriage. Without benefit of counsel, Sayward works out an understanding of Portius and of her own feelings that preserves her marriage and self-respect. This is one example of the many situations in this pioneer family that require strength, humility, and acceptance of circumstances. These situations help give the novel its warmth, realism, and vitality.

Bibliography

  • Barnes, Robert J. Conrad Richter. Austin, Tex.: Steck-Vaughn, 1968.
  • Carpenter, Frederic I. "Conrad Richter's Pioneers: Reality and Myth." College English 12 (1950): 77-84.
  • Cowan, William. "Delaware Vocabulary in the Works of Conrad Richter." In Papers of the Twenty-ninth Algonquian Conference, edited by David H. Pentland. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1998.
  • Edwards, Clifford D. Conrad Richter's Ohio Trilogy. The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton, 1970.
  • Flanagan, John T. "Conrad Richter: Romancer of the Southwest." Southwest Review 43 (1958): 189-196.
  • Gaston, Edwin W., Jr. Conrad Richter. Rev. ed. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.
  • Johnson, David R. Conrad Richter: A Writer's Life. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.
  • Kohler, Dayton. "Conrad Richter's Early Americana." College English 7 (1947): 221-228.
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