The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Annie Dillard develops the first half of the book by focusing on the individual sagas of single characters, family groups, or thematically linked pairs of characters. Each subsequent section also moves forward in time in terms of the waves of settlers who come to Bellingham Bay. Each of these introductory sections gives a history of how individuals related to the land upon their arrival, and how their characters and relationships developed as they encountered new hardships in the strange landscape.

Ada Fishburn, who is depicted in the first section, survives until the end of the novel, although the focus will shift to her sons and their generation. She is marked primarily by memories of loss—of her children and husband—and by her progress in accepting the native inhabitants and their ways as familiar. Dillard often presents Ada’s character in third-person omniscient narration; sometimes, she shows Ada’s emotional response to a scene. Ada is an intrepid pioneer and admirable survivor.

John Ireland Sharp, who is depicted in the second section, has ties to both the East and the West, and he is simultaneously an orphan and a man with historical roots in Whatcom. An educator who is greatly moved by the plight of the Chinese in America, John in his early years devotes himself to liberal social causes. His character is defined primarily by the events that shape him and his response to duties placed on him. Ironically, he becomes hermetic by...

(The entire section is 444 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Clare Fishburn

Clare Fishburn, who arrives in Washington with his family in 1855, at the age of five. He grows up in the developing settlement of Whatcom and works at various jobs, including high school teacher and real estate agent. He marries June Randall, his neighbor Minta Honer’s sister, and they have three children. Clare finds happiness in all aspects of his life and is always enthusiastic. Even when Beal Obenchain threatens him with death, he still enjoys life to the fullest.

Ada Fishburn Tawes

Ada Fishburn Tawes, who makes the overland journey from Missouri to Whatcom by covered wagon with her sons and husband. Her husband, Rooney, dies from asphyxiation while digging a well. She later marries Norval Tawes, a Methodist minister whom she outlives. Her religious faith is strong. She remains in the Whatcom area for the rest of her life.

Glee Fishburn

Glee Fishburn, Clare’s younger brother. He marries Grace, the niece of a Seattle madam. He works as a fisherman in Whatcom, rears several children, and falls out of love with his wife, preferring to stay on his boat and fish.

June Randall Fishburn

June Randall Fishburn, a Baltimore debutante. She gives up the chance to marry well in Baltimore and instead settles in Whatcom with her husband, Clare Fishburn. More practical than her pious sister Minta, she rears three children and remains steadfastly...

(The entire section is 529 words.)