The Raider

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Jesse Hill Ford’s The Raider took a long time to write: eight years, including research and revision. It is, as he says, a simple story; it is not Gone with the Wind, nor was it meant to be. There is no grand cinematic climax, no immortal passion. Instead it is a family chronicle, its bare facts passed down the generations by word of mouth, and given flesh by the author, whose great care it has been to set the story forth in such a way as to keep faith with his forebears who lived it.

Hill has aimed to show that the Tennessee frontier was settled not by heroes and demi-gods but by mortals whose chief virtues were singlemindedness and perseverance and whose only wealth was their own strength spent without stint. They were a complex and a restless people, with vaulting dreams and feet of clay. Chief among them was Elias McCutcheon, who came to West Tennessee orphaned and bereft by a cholera epidemic, possessing only a dog, a horse, and a certain vision. The Raider is the story of how the character of the man and the conditions of his life combined to form first a great landholder, then a consummate soldier.

In the beginning of the novel, Elias is alone and loneliness and physical striving form the poles of his existence. Like Adam, his every act is pristine; his dog is called Dog, as if it were the first one in the world. This comparison with Adam cuts two ways, emphasizing Elias’ moral isolation on the one hand, and on the other pointing up the fact that he inhabits no temperate bountiful garden but a winter-bound wilderness, hostile and demanding. Instead of God Almighty, he confronts Shokotee, a prosperous Chickasaw landowner and dispenser of all good things, in the shape of edibles, tools, and ultimately Elias’ Eve, Jane. Elias and Jane couple in the fields and Elias’ seed falls into the plowed earth; symbolically he weds the land, forming a mystical union. Not that he puts it that way to himself, being a plain man, roughly literate; still he remembers it, especially amid the griefs and terrors of the Civil War, like a talisman, a reason to labor and to fight. Godlike Elias is: in his work of creating a farm and a home, and in the gift of his person to his wife and his mistress Ellen Ashe. Yet the author humanizes his ancestor deftly: he is also capable of smacking his thumb with a hammer, of expounding fatheadedly the primacy of Christian dogma over Indian myth, of being manipulated by various females.

Elias and Jane represent two strains of civilization, one hard, analytic, and European, the other yielding, intuitive, and Indian. In a curious way the one culture, in supplanting the other, subsumes it, so that the resulting society shows elements of both, and indeed not always the best elements. The raider Sim Hornby, who, having robbed Elias, slices Jane’s face in a wholly gratuitous act of savagery, is, pointedly, a half-breed. Jane is the premier example of the conjunction of two ways of life. An orphan whose family were long ago murdered by Indians, she is Shokotee’s adopted child, calling him “Father” and his house “home.” Her mix of Indian hardihood and European sense of duty makes her the ideal mate for Elias; it saves her life and her mind after her mutilation, and enables her to run the plantation during the war. Yet another example of the fusion of cultures occurs after the freebooters’ attack, in which all the farms in the district are robbed, and the civilized Chickasaws under Shokotee’s command and the settlers under Elias join forces. They stage the famous raid on the bandit stronghold called the Horse Pens. Employing a hybrid strategy of Indian-style ambush followed by regular volleys of musketry, infantry-fashion, the combined forces wipe out the robbers and plunder their stores, thus enriching themselves and bringing order to the district in one bold stroke. The raid transforms both Elias and the neighborhood. The settlers, previously feeling merely part of a scatter of clearings along the creeks, after the raid feel themselves part of a community, with a corporate self-respect and a communal moral standard. And Elias, before the raid merely one among many skilled and tireless hunters and farmers, emerges from the adventure a recognized strategist and leader of men, able to forge a mob into a weapon, and to compel men to exceed their normal capacities.

The raid on the Horse Pens has other, darker consequences, both public and private. For Elias, though it has meant material riches and social recognition, it also seems to put an end to his content. Jane’s mutilation preys on his mind; he wonders guiltily if it is a punishment for his liaison with Ellen Ashe. Jane’s withdrawal from their former intimacy drives him more and more into Ellen’s arms, but prosperity has changed even this comfort: he feels less easy in her fine house than he had in her rough cabin in the midst of its stump field. Paralleling the change in Elias’ life, the economic...

(The entire section is 2028 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Best Sellers. XXXV, December, 1975, p. 273.

Booklist. LXXII, January 1, 1976, p. 613.

National Observer. XV, January 24, 1976, p. 19.

New York Times Book Review. May 16, 1976, p. 37.

Virginia Quarterly Review. LII, Autumn, 1976, p. 130.