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.