Raintree County Summary
A big celebration is held in Raintree County, Indiana, on July 4, 1892. The birthday of the nation is noted with the usual parades and fireworks, and everyone is excited that Indiana senator Garwood Jones is returning to his hometown to make a speech. Among those who greet the senator is his old friend and rival John Wickliff Shawnessy, who once opposed Jones for political office and lost. As Shawnessy experiences the events of the day, his mind wanders back to other times.
Shawnessy remembers growing up in Raintree County, the son of T. D. Shawnessy, a physician and preacher, and Ellen Shawnessy, a wise and gentle woman. John’s early life is haunted by the legend of the raintree, a magic tree with yellow flowers that is rumored to grow somewhere in the county. Most of the county is easy to travel over, so the most likely place for the fabulous raintree to be hidden is deep in a swamp at the end of a lake in the middle of the county. John vows that he will find the raintree some day. He also has another dream of writing a great epic that will encapsulate and explain not only Raintree County but also the American republic.
John’s adolescence is affected by three people. Jerusalem Webster Stiles, known as the Perfessor, establishes an academy that young Johnny Shawnessy attends, along with his friends Garwood Jones and Nell Gaither. The Perfessor is only a few years older than his students, and he has a cynical, worldly-wise attitude that frequently puts him in conflict with his fellow citizens and occasions a debate with the more optimistic Shawnessy that lasts a lifetime. Garwood is a smoother self-promoter than the Perfessor; he knows how to manipulate people, telling them what they want to hear. Even as a youth he is well on his way to a successful career in politics. Nell Gaither is a spirited blond beauty with whom John is deeply in love. She loves him too, but each is too shy to approach the other. John and Nell communicate only through vague hints and inscriptions in books that they give each other. John’s love for Nell is made permanent when he sees her naked, rising from the lake; Nell later reveals that she knew he was there that day.
The day of John’s graduation from the Perfessor’s academy is packed with excitement. When John has his graduation picture taken, he meets in the photographer’s studio a beautiful visitor from the South, Susanna Drake. After the graduation ceremony, everyone goes to the lake, and John and Nell (who is apart for once from her usual escort, Garwood) are about to consummate their love for each other when they are interrupted by cries from their companions—a posse is hunting for the Perfessor, who has run off with the minister’s wife. In fact, the couple missed their train, and the minister’s wife has gone back home. Johnny finds the Perfessor and helps him to escape.
That same year, the Fourth of July celebration is enlivened by a race between John and Flash Perkins, a runner who has never been beaten. John’s friends plan to fix the race by getting Flash drunk, but this scheme backfires when John gets drunk instead. He wins the race anyway, and once again everyone goes to the lake to picnic. His inhibitions loosened by drink, John makes love for the first time—with Susanna Drake.
Later Susanna tells John that she is pregnant, and he does the honorable thing and marries her. They take a trip to New Orleans, where John learns of Susanna’s tragic past. Her mother had gone insane, and her father is rumored to have had an intimate relationship with a slave. All of these people died in a fire that destroyed the plantation house; only Susanna survived. Susanna is horrified by the possibility that she might be her father’s child by the slave, and she is also worried that she might go mad like her mother. After they return to Raintree County, Susanna gives birth to a son, but soon her...
(The entire section is 1,050 words.)