Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

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.