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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 512

Richard Powers traces the origins of the Clare company back to the 18th-century English trading concerns. One of the sons, Jephthah Clare, decided to try America, settling in Boston in 1807. He ambitiously built up his trade through a combination of shrewd decisions, risk taking, and just plain luck. Jephthah invested widely and operated inside and outside the law, depending on the economic climate. (Although the slave trade was abolished in 1808, Powers does not mention his involvement in that aspect of commerce.)

A memory for trustworthiness and great patience for paper labyrinths saw him through many setbacks. Confidence returned cash, and cash bought confidence. Jephthah handled cotton and indigo and potash. But above all else, he dealt in risk.

Branching out from commerce to manufacture, his sons begin making candles and soap. Their rationale is, in part, the success they have had in selling these products, as well as the fact that their very nature is to be used up. They are initially determined to make high-quality products which will create a high demand, even if they initially lose money. Another part of the appeal is that both products use some of the same ingredients. After the soaps had been mixed, poured, dried, and cut into cakes, they did not resemble their ingredients.

The resulting slabs were a mystery to behold. Here was a substance, grease’s second cousin. Yet something had turned waste inside out. Dirt’s duckling transformed to salve’s swain, its rancid nosegay rearranged into aromatic garland.

The Clare company had continued to expand in the range of products made and in the direction of marketing. As the United States reached westward, so did the company. In the late 19th century, it established a new headquarters in Lacewood, Illinois. The corporation affects every aspect of the town’s life. Not only is it the major employer, but it endows a multitude of worthy causes. Its presence is so well established that it has come to seem natural, and many people take it for granted. They know what it makes and what it does but feel no personal connection.

Soap, fertilizer, cosmetics, comestibles . . . [A resident] knows Clare no better than she knows Grace or Dow. She does not work for the corporation or anyone the corporation directly owns. . . . She hums the company theme song to herself sometimes, without realizing.

The Clare company’s all-too-real impact on this resident, Laura Bodey, comes to light when she develops ovarian cancer. The stories of her medical diagnosis and treatment and the harm the corporation has caused by rampant, unchecked pollution progress in tight alternation. As the reader develops interest in the Clare family members, they are simultaneously becoming involved in Laura’s life. Powers uses this technique to emphasize the unbreakable connection between producer and consumer.

It makes no difference whether this business gave her cancer. They have given her everything else. Taken her life and molded it in every way imaginable, plus six degrees beyond imagining. Changed her life so greatly that not even cancer can change it more than halfway back.

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