Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1541
First published: 1926
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Historical romance
Time of work: 1735-1760
Locale: Virginia and Ohio
John Selkirk, a Scottish Presbyterian minister
Jean Selkirk, his wife
Andrew Selkirk, their son
Tam Selkirk, their younger children
Colonel Matthew Burke, a wealthy Virginia landowner
Conan Burke, his son and later Elizabeth Selkirk's husband
Nancy Milliken Selkirk, Andrew Selkirk's wife
Stephen Trabue, a driver and guide
John Selkirk and his family, including a spinster sister of Mrs. Selkirk, were bound for Virginia with a number of other immigrants in the small ship Prudence. Mr. Selkirk, a Presbyterian minister somewhat too liberal for his congregation at Thistlebrae Kirk, in Scotland, had decided to establish a new kirk in the Shenando or Great Valley of Virginia. Arriving in Williamsburg, where his oldest son Andrew was already living, he was introduced to Colonel Matthew Burke, who was developing a large tract of land in the valley and seeking settlers for it. John and Andrew Selkirk together purchased four hundred acres and prepared to set out for the valley. John had asked Colonel Burke how the Indians felt about having their lands occupied by white men but had been assured that there would be no trouble, since the lands had been obtained through treaties and since many Indians had moved farther west to find better hunting grounds.
Stephen Trabue, a friendly driver and guide, was to accompany the Selkirk family on part of the journey to the valley. As they traveled, he explained to them many of the conditions and details of daily living which they might expect in their new homes. Even Nancy Milliken, who had just become Mrs. Andrew Selkirk, would find life in the valley very difficult from that in Williamsburg, her former home.
Seven years later, John Selkirk had a congregation of two hundred in his Mt. Olivet Church, and Andrew had three hundred acres, three indentured youths to help him farm them, a grist mill, and ambitious plans for increasing his holdings and obtaining more helpers, including black slaves. John did not favor slavery, but Andrew saw nothing wrong with it as long as he treated his slaves humanely.
A few of John's Calvinist church members objected to the joyousness in his sermons. Liking fire-and-brimstone threats from the pulpit, they complained that their minister did not believe in infant damnation and was even scornful of those who thought that certain evil people were capable of practicing witchcraft.
Shortly after Colonel Burke died during a visit to the home of his son Conan, who had married Elizabeth Selkirk and settled in Burke's Tract, both Conan and John Selkirk decided to move a day's journey west into Burke's Land, an undeveloped tract which the colonel had also planned to fill with new settlers. There John established Mount Promise Church, and Conan looked forward to the growth of a thriving new community in what had been the wilderness. Some excitement was caused by a visit from a young surveyor, Mr. Washington, who reported that the French were expanding their colonization along the Ohio River and were moving eastward into Virginia lands. Also, the French had stirred up the Indians, especially the Shawnees, so that they had become a menace to the English and Scots living in the western Virginia settlements.
To the grief of her family, Jean Selkirk died after a brief illness. The Selkirks were disturbed by reports of sporadic Indian massacres and revenge killings by whites. Yet when Andrew Selkirk warned Conan to move back to Burke's Tract, Conan refused, believing that if proper precautions were taken, there was no need to fear the Indians. Not long afterward, John Selkirk was tricked into following what he thought was a lost lamb into the woods where he was shot by an Indian.
The increasing frequency of Indian attacks soon caused many settlers to flee south into North Carolina, and those who remained stayed on permanent guard. No new people moved into such areas as Burke's Land, and a guerrilla war against the marauding Indians was kept up by the Virginians, many of whose Scottish and Irish forebears had fought in much the same way to protect their Old World homes from English invaders.
In a surprise attack on Conan's homestead, a small group of Shawnees triumphed, murdering men, women, and children, scalping their victims, and taking as captives Elizabeth and two of her children, Eileen and young Andrew, Old Mother Dick, who had come with the family from their former home in Burke's Tract, and two of the Burke servants. As the Indians and their captives moved westward, one brave, annoyed by young Andrew's screaming, tore him from Elizabeth's grasp and threw him over a cliff into Last Leap River.
For some time, the five remaining captives lived with the Indians in a village near the Ohio River. Elizabeth, who had been taken as a squaw by Long Thunder, bore him a son; but she was biding the time when she might escape with Mother Dick and Eileen, who was still too young to be claimed by some other brave as his squaw. Elizabeth finally managed to slip away from camp with her daughter and the frail but undaunted old woman. Left behind was the half-Indian baby whom a young Indian woman had promised to care for if anything happened to Elizabeth. Regretfully left with the Indians were also the black slave, Ajax, and the white servant, Barb, who might someday manage to return to Virginia.
The long, painful journey and the struggle against exhaustion and starvation were too much for Mother Dick, who died on the way. Elizabeth and Eileen, continuing their journey eastward into the rugged mountains, were constantly on guard against roving Indian bands and diligently seeking food from stream or forest to allay their hunger. At last, they reached Last Leap River, into which the baby Andrew had been thrown so long ago. Elizabeth, peering through bushes toward the river, saw a canoe heading down it, going westward. It was paddled, not by Indians as she at first feared, but by her brother Robin, the guide Stephen Trabue, and her husband Conan Burke. After the joyous reunion, Conan explained that, though Elizabeth had seen him attacked by some of the raiders and apparently killed, he had actually been rescued by neighbors after having been gravely wounded. His slowly healing wounds and the continuation of the war against the Indians and the French had prevented his and Robin's pushing toward the Ohio to rescue, if possible, the Shawnees' captives. Finally peace had come—in America, though not yet in Europe between England and France—and the word had spread to all wandering bands that now it was safe to travel in Indian territory. As soon as possible, he had set out with Robin and Stephen to search for his loved ones. As the happy group sat about a fire to eat a breakfast which was like a banquet to Elizabeth and Eileen, the famished girl clung to the belief she had had a short time before, when she wakened from a deep sleep to find her mother and her father standing above her. To her, the reunion seemed miraculously wonderful.
Mary Johnston intended THE GREAT VALLEY as an epic of the opening of the American frontier, and in some respects she succeeded. It is a well-crafted and enjoyable novel, if not overly profound. An optimistic book, it does not avoid describing the hardships of the settlers' lives but stresses the positive aspects of their adventure. The beauty of the virgin land comes to symbolize in the minds of John Selkirk and his family its promise for the future.
The characters are virtuous, indomitable, and almost too noble; yet the reader feels that such people must have existed to build up the country. For Johnston's idealistic novel, at least, they are artistically right. The inner lives of the characters are not dealt with at all; Johnston pays only the most superficial attention to the psychology of her people. Their lives are entirely composed of physical acts and of desires, of hopes for the future and of hard work, and, occasionally, of memories of past life in Scotland. They are not soft people; they are capable of meeting every adversity in their paths. "Crying's good too, sometimes," says Jean Selkirk. "But I don't cry much." This is the key to her character and to most of the characters in the novel.
There is no complicated plot in THE GREEN VALLEY; the story is that of the efforts of the Selkirk clan to establish themselves in the wilds of America. Some family members die, others marry and have children, and life moves on. The spare writing avoids melodrama. Johnston respects her characters, as they respect one another. John Selkirk respects all men, black and red as well as white, as long as they deserve respect; he refuses to countenance slavery, although his son differs from him on the issue. Even here, there is no violent disagreement. The lives of the family move forward, and its members establish a base for their descendants, which was their dream when they first sailed on the Prudence.