(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Born in 1866, Hugh McVey grew up in a small Missouri town as the motherless child of a drunken father. Spending his days lounging and dreaming on the banks of the Mississippi River, Hugh had no formal education, learned few manners, and became very lazy. The railroad comes to town in 1880 when Hugh is fourteen years old, and he gets a job as a factotum at the station, loading baggage and sweeping the platform. Hugh receives little pay but gets to live with his boss, Henry Shepard, and his wife, Sarah. The childless couple treat Hugh as their own son, providing him with shelter, food, new clothes, and affection. Soon Sarah begins to educate him. Sarah, who is from New England, always preserves her memory of quiet Eastern villages and large industrial cities. Determined to educate Hugh, she lavishes on him the discipline and affection she would have given her own child.

The situation is difficult, at first, for both of them, but Sarah Shepard is a determined woman. She teaches Hugh to read, to write, and to wonder about the world beyond the little town. She instills within him the belief that his family had been of no account, and he grows to have a revulsion toward the poor white farmers and workers. Sarah always holds out before him the promise of the East, the progress and growth of that region. Gradually, Hugh begins to win his fight against natural indolence and to adjust himself to his new way of life. When the Shepards leave town, Hugh, then nineteen years old, is appointed station agent for the railroad.

Hugh keeps the job for a year. During that time, the dream of Eastern cities grew more and more vivid for Hugh. When his father dies, Hugh gives up his job and travels east, working wherever he can. Always lonely, always apart from people, he feels an impenetrable wall between himself and the rest of the world. He keeps on the journey, through Illinois, Indiana, and then Ohio.

Hugh is twenty-three years old when he settles down in Ohio. By accident, he gets the job of telegraph operator, just a mile from the town of Bidwell. There he lives alone, a familiar and puzzling figure to the people of the town. The rumor begins to spread that he is an inventor working on a new device. Others suggest that he is looking over the town for a possible factory site. Hugh is doing neither as yet. Then, during his walks around the farmlands, he becomes fascinated by the motions of the farmers planting their seeds and their crops. Slowly there grows in his mind an idea for a crop-setting machine that would save the labor of the farmers and their families.

Steve Hunter, who has just come back from school in Buffalo, is another dreamer. He dreams of being a...

(The entire section is 1104 words.)