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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In The Living—a book that took her three years to research and write—Dillard creates a tapestry of the American Frontier but set in an area not generally portrayed in novels: the Pacific Northwest. In her only novel to date, Dillard chronicles the lives of the people who settled at Whatcom on Bellingham Bay and built the town of Bellingham in what would later become the state of Washington. The book’s setting is one with which Dillard became personally acquainted while artist-in-residence at Western Washington State University in Bellingham.

The people in this novel are pioneers of the first order who struggle against so many difficulties that it seems unlikely that they should succeed. However, these people persist, even in the face of great odds. Moreover, because Dillard wished to create a novel in the spirit of nineteenth century novels, The Living is a “big” book, full of violence and murder, offering many plot threads and spanning several generations in its telling.

Besides being a departure from her usual forms in that it is a novel, The Living also marks a change in Dillard’s focus, from one sighted mostly on a solitary person to that which takes in multitudes. She accomplishes this breadth of perspective by creating four interconnected groups which each include various types of people: white, Chinese, and Lummi and Skagit Native Americans; rich and poor; hardworking and conniving; good and evil. In this manner the perspective of Dillard’s writing vision expands outward in a way different from her previous work; yet the result is the same: to explore people’s place in a vast and oftentimes unwelcoming or at least seemingly indifferent universe. In fact, Dillard makes a point of noting that she chose to make this shift to include others, to get away from the self-absorption of her earlier writing and concentrate on many people rather selecting just one person as her main focus. In that regard, The Living provided Dillard with a large and complicated cast of characters to move among. Dillard said that in writing this book she “wanted to write about little-bitty people in a great big landscape.” For the same reason, characters “come and go” throughout the novel, appearing and disappearing from the story as individuals would in real life. To achieve the verisimilitude she sought, Dillard immersed herself in research, reading extensively in the literature of the period so that she could replicate the language and spirit of the time.

The Living opens in 1855 when the young married couple Ada and Rooney Fishburn move West by covered wagon, embodying the struggle facing pioneers leaving home seeking a “better” life. This novel accurately and brutally portrays what the people making this journey experienced on the way and found once they arrived at their destination, thousands of miles from home and family. The times are never easy for the people of...

(The entire section is 742 words.)