Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1149
During his childhood, Alwyn Tower spends many hours poring over the family albums: everything his ancestors or relatives did is interesting to the boy. He begs his Grandmother Tower to tell him stories of her childhood and stories about her children and other relatives. Often, the old lady cannot remember what he wants to know, and sometimes she seems reluctant to talk about the past. Yet, piece by piece, from his Grandmother Tower, his parents, his aunts and uncles, and from the albums, Alwyn learns something of what he wants to know.
Alwyn’s Grandfather Tower died when the boy was twelve years old, and so his memories of that old man are rather vague. Grandfather Tower’s chief interest during his old age was his garden, where he never allowed his grandchildren to go without his permission. He failed at farming, but he was the best gardener in that part of Wisconsin.
Grandfather Tower came to Wisconsin from New York. Like so many others, he planned to get rich in the new West; like so many others, he failed. He was a young boy full of dreams when he first cleared the wilderness for his farm. He fell in love with and married Serena Cannon and, shortly afterward, went off to the Civil War. When he returned, Serena was ill with a fever and died soon after, leaving a baby boy. Grandfather Tower never loved another as he loved Serena. Because the boy needed a mother, however, he married Rose Hamilton, who had been jilted by his brother Leander. Serena’s boy died a week before Rose bore Henry’s first child. After that, life seemed unimportant to Henry. There were more children, some a small pleasure to him, some a disgrace; but they seemed to be Rose’s children, not his. Part of Grandfather Tower died with Serena, and although he lived to be eighty-two years old, he never seemed to be completely alive as far as Alwyn is concerned.
Grandmother Tower, too, came to Wisconsin when she was a child. Growing up in the wilderness, she suffered all the hardships of the pioneers—hunger and cold and fear of Indians. When she was in her early teens, she met and fell in love with Leander Tower. When the Civil War came, Leander enlisted, and the girl went to stay with Serena. While Serena was ill with fever, the young girl cared for her and the baby. Leander returned, but he had changed. Although he could not explain himself clearly, Rose knew that he no longer wanted to marry her. After Serena’s husband came home and Serena had died, Leander went to California. Rose married Serena’s widower and bore his children, but, like him, she was only partly alive. She never ceased to love Leander, but she was faithful to Grandfather Tower, even after Leander returned to Wisconsin. To Alwyn, she was a quiet, serene woman, resigned to life, but not unhappy with her lot.
Alwyn learns about many of his more distant relatives as he studies the albums and listens to the stories of his elders. There is his Great-Aunt Nancy Tower, who was insane for part of her life. There is his Great-Aunt Mary Harris, who was married three times and traveled all over the world. Grandmother Tower says that Great-Aunt Mary was a real pioneer. She saw her first husband killed by Southerners because he sympathized with the Union. Her second husband was a drunken sot who beat her, and often she had to beg for food to stay alive. After her second husband divorced her, she married one of the Tower men, and for the first time, she knew happiness and prosperity.
Old Leander Tower seemed to be happy only when he was helping a young boy. His younger brother Hilary disappeared in the war, and it seemed almost as if Leander were trying to find a substitute for his brother.
Alwyn knows his father’s brothers and sisters quite well. His Uncle Jim is a minister who married a rich woman, and they take Alwyn to live with them in Chicago, giving the boy his only chance for a good education. Uncle Jim’s wife persuaded her husband to give up preaching. After her death, he continues to live with her mother and sisters and to humor their whims. Alwyn likes his Uncle Jim, but he cannot admire him.
Uncle Evan, a deserter in the Spanish-American War, went West to live after taking a new name. Once or twice he came home to visit his father, but both men seemed embarrassed during those meetings. Grandfather Tower was always ashamed of Evan, and during the last visit Evan made, the old man refused to enter the house while his son was there.
Aunt Flora was an old maid, although she still thought of herself as a young girl. She had many chances to marry, but she was afraid of the force of love, afraid that something hidden in her would be roused and not satisfied. It was a mysterious thing she could not understand. She turned to Alwyn, giving him her love and accepting his, for she could love the young boy wholeheartedly, having nothing to fear from him. When she was twenty-nine years old, she fell ill and died. Alwyn thought she looked happy as she took her last breath.
Alwyn’s father, Ralph Tower, always wanted to be a veterinarian, for he had a way with animals. However, Uncle Jim was the one chosen for an education, and after Uncle Evan deserted and went west, Ralph took over the farm for his father. He was never bitter, merely resigned. Perhaps he would have envied Jim if it had not been for Alwyn’s mother.
His parents have one of the few really happy marriages in the family, Alwyn realizes as he watches them together. Alwyn knows something of the girlhood of his mother. Her parents hated each other fiercely and took pleasure in showing that hatred. Alwyn’s mother was a lonely child until she met Ralph. Sometimes it embarrasses Alwyn to see his parents together because they reveal so much of their feeling for each other.
Alwyn realizes that the Towers are one of the last pioneer families in America. He knows that in his heritage is a deep religious feeling, a willingness to accept poverty and hardship as the will of God. His heritage is a disordered one, with a deserter, an insane woman, a man and a wife who hated each other, and an uncle who lived on the wealth of his wife’s mother. These people are just as much a part of him as are the others. Alwyn knows that his life will be a rearrangement of the characters of the others. He knows that he can understand himself once he understands his people.