The Living

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Annie Dillard’s first novel, The Living, marks a dramatic departure from her earlier work. As essayist, naturalist, autobiographer, and poet, she has been noted for her intensely personal narrative essays and nonfiction works, such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974). In The Living, she has discarded the introspective, confessional style in favor of an impersonal, third-person narration that allows her to tell the story of the early settlers in Bellingham Bay, Washington Territory, during the first generation of settlement, from 1855 to 1897. The result is a grand historical novel in the nineteenth century style.

In The Living, Dillard traces the interconnected lives of five pioneer families that settled in Whatcom, on Bellingham Bay, ninety miles north of Seattle, in Washington Territory. Her characters—the Fishburns, the Sharps, the Irelands, the Honers, and the Obenchains—are vividly and intensely drawn. Although her characters are for the most part fictional, Dillard emphasizes the historical accuracy of her portraits, concentrating on accurate details of dress, speech, and local customs. As she indicates in her preface, Dillard’s novel recounts the story of the settlement of the four linked communities located on Bellingham Bay—Whatcom, Old Bellingham, Sehome, and Fairhaven—that were consolidated in 1904 to form the city of Bellingham. The novel is divided into seven major sections, the first four telling the interconnected stories of four families and the last three examining the fates of their children. In order to write this novel, Dillard did a great deal of background research, immersing herself in local county histories, family biographies, and memoirs. She was particularly intrigued by the memoirs of local real estate developer George Bacon, whom she incorporated into her novel.

To a remarkable degree, The Living captures the hopeful and optimistic spirit of the early pioneers in the Pacific Northwest. Dillard recounts the incredible hardships of the Fishburn family’s overland journey by covered wagon, in which Ada Fishburn loses her child Charley when he falls from their wagon and is crushed under a wheel. Later, her husband Rooney is killed in a freak accident while digging a well. Her other two sons—Clare and Glee—are the survivors who prosper in this new country. The strength of the novel is in the resiliency of the characters rather than in the plot—as the title implies.

The original Northwest pioneers came from all walks of life—from wealthy Eastern families to poor European immigrants and Chinese contract laborers. John Ireland Sharp’s family leaves the mainland to homestead on Madrone Island in Bellingham Bay after the Panic of 1873. There the boy meets the evil Beal Obenchain, a bully, sadist, and murderer. After the rest of his family drown in Bellingham Bay, the orphan John Sharp is taken in by the Obenchains, a family of German immigrants. A brilliant student, John is sent east to study classics at Oberlin College and later returns to become the local high school principal. An idealist, he becomes disillusioned with socialism after witnessing mobs of unemployed American workers attacking Chinese laborers. Sharp takes in two brothers, Johnny Lee and Lee Chin, to protect them from mob violence. He retreats into his books and practices an austere stoicism, returning each summer to vacation on the remote Madrone Island where he spent his boyhood.

Eustace and Minta Honer, wealthy and cultivated Baltimore aristocrats, decide after their marriage to head west and homestead in the new Washington Territory. Better situated than most pioneers, the Honers can afford to buy and clear 320 acres of fertile bottomland along the Nooksack River and build a ten-room frame house and the biggest barn in the county. Eustace farms scientifically, raising hops for eastern beer brewers. He drowns while helping to clear a logjam on the Nooksack River, and Minta is left widowed with three young children. When her parents, Senator and Mrs. Green Randall, come to bring her home to Baltimore, Minta refuses to go. Her younger sister June remains behind with her and later marries Clare Fishburn.

The most sinister character is the hulking, idle Beal Obenchain, who becomes a study in gratuitous evil. Even as a child, there was something strange about him, a coward and bully who attempts to hurt or dominate others to cover up his fear. Beal seriously injures John Ireland Sharp in a fight when he kicks and thrashes the younger boy while he is down. Later on, Beal maliciously strangles a calf in his father’s barn as a test of his willpower. He grows up to be a large hulking idler, avoiding all work and haunting the shoreline, Caliban-like, living under an overturned cedar stump and scavenging for clams and mussels along the muddy flats of Bellingham Bay. A cold, deliberately cruel man, contemptuous of others, he fancies himself an intellectual and reads Arthur Schopenhauer. Having no life of his own, Beal attempts to possess the lives of others. As a symbol of the enigma of evil, he resembles the giant water bug in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that slowly sucks the life out of a small frog.

The townspeople are uneasy about Beal and rumors abound about his misdeeds, but no one is willing to confront him directly. As an experiment in cruelty, he lashes the Chinese laborer Lee Chin to a wharf piling and leaves him to drown when the tide comes in six hours later. Becoming more brazen in his contempt for others, he decides to pick a victim at random and threaten him with murder, as a “purely mental exercise,” hoping to frighten his victim to death. Inspired by a line from Ralph Waldo Emerson—“Do the thing and you will have the power”—Beal chooses Clare Fishburn as his victim. Clare does not frighten easily, however, and Beal’s plans are thwarted when Johnny Lee, brother to the drowned man, discovers his brother’s handkerchief on Beal and takes his revenge.

The Living ultimately is the story of the region itself—of the displacement of the aboriginal peoples and the development of the Pacific Northwest. It is a story of a region with a magnificent natural setting of sea and mountains, rich and abundant natural resources, and friendly Native American tribes...

(The entire section is 2590 words.)