Raintree County is a long and complex novel with an appeal to many audiences. In this work, Ross Lockridge, Jr., combines a historical novel, a gothic romance, and a love story. The technique, through which the events of the day of July 4, 1892, are interrupted by flashbacks and those flashbacks by further digressions, is that of the modern novel, with its insistence on the importance of psychological rather than chronological time. The overlay of Christian and pagan myths links the book to the great traditions of Western literature and philosophy. The forty years covered by the novel were a period of great strife leading to industrialization and territorial growth. The issue of slavery and the dual culture of the pre-Civil War United States led to the struggle that freed the slaves and settled the issue of the permanence of the Union. John Shawnessy is involved in this conflict on both political and personal levels. He participates in a political race and in Sherman’s march to the sea, and he is a witness to Lincoln’s assassination. The battle scenes are among the book’s most vivid and memorable episodes.
The question of slavery also touches John’s personal life. His first wife, Susanna, is bedeviled by the fear that she might be half black. In the racist society of the antebellum South, being half black was a worse fate than being insane. Susanna is not the child of her crazed legal mother but of her father’s black mistress, but the realization that she is half black drives her insane anyway. John’s relationship with Susanna and the creepy situations they encounter when they visit the South make up the part of the novel that resembles a grim gothic tragedy.
The three women in John’s life also make the novel a love story, one that does not end, as most such stories do, in marriage or rejection. Instead, the love story lasts through all the years of John’s life. John’s most intense love is for the blond Nell Gaither, but the two are cut off from each other precisely because of this intensity and perhaps because of their...
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