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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1815

First published: 1940

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Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Regional romance

Time of work: Late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries

Locale: Old Northwest Territory

Principal Characters:

Worth Luckett, a woodsy

Jary, his wife

Sayward, ,

Genny, ,

Achsa, ,

Wyitt, and

Sulie, their children

Louie Scurrah, Genny's husband

Portius Wheeler, Sayward's husband

Jake Tench, a white runner

The Story

Worth Luckett was a woodsy with an itching foot. By the time he had five growing children and one left in its infant grave, he was ready to take off again. He had already been west when he was a boy with Colonel Bouquet. Jary, his wife, had never wanted to leave the settlements, but game was growing scarce in Pennsylvania; without food brought down by his gun, Worth could not see how he could feed his family. He was wary of telling Jary outright that he wanted to move on, but she knew what he wanted and was half resigned to it when she heard that the animals were clearing out of places where men lived.

Because Jary had the slow fever, the care of the younger children fell on Sayward's shoulders. She was nearly fifteen, a strapping girl scared of neither man nor beast. It was not beyond her strength to drown a white-faced buck when Worth had neglected to bring meat home. The girls, Genny, Achsa, and baby Sulie, and the boy Wyitt knew they had to step when Sayward spoke.

Worth led his family across the Ohio River and on until they came to a wilderness of trees that reached as far as the eye could see. Near a spot covered with deer antlers, Worth laid out a place for a cabin. He was handy enough with tools to have the shell of a cabin up quickly, but the game in the woods drew him away so often that fall came before the cabin was finished. The darkness under the big trees had disheartened Jary so much that she did not even speak of the cabin, until one fall day when the leaves had fallen so that she could look up through the branches and see the sky again. Then she felt like a human being who wanted to live in a house. She sent Worth back to his job. The snow fell the day after they moved into their cabin.

A few Indians still followed the trace by the house. One came on a night when Worth was away. Sayward hid the ax under her bed to fell him if he made a move toward the children in the loft or came toward her bed. He got up at night to cook some of his own meat at the fire. Worth was disturbed when he came home and found the Indian still there, but he and the Indian roared with delight when Sayward showed them the hidden ax.

Jary had such a hankering after some bread that Worth walked six days to bring back some white flour, but she could not eat the bread after Sayward made it; the slow fever had nearly finished her. When she died, they buried her under one of the big trees outside the cabin. Worth went away for a while, leaving Sayward to take care of the others.

One day, for the first time since they had lived there, they heard another ax in the woods. The young ones investigated and found a cabin going up, a man and a boy working on it. The man was a tom thumb, Sayward thought, when he asked her father for Sayward as a wife. Sayward thought he might be the first around there to ask her to marry him but probably not the last.

Before long, a trading post was set up by the river. Wyitt could hardly wait to trade off some of his skins for a knife. Indians and whites were whooping it up while he was there. He never forgot the sight of the wolf they skinned alive and set free.

More people raised cabins nearby until the Lucketts had several neighbors within walking distance. Worth blamed them and their cutting of the trees for the swamp pestilence that brought down Achsa, who was as brown and tough as an Indian. While the fever was on her, Achsa begged for water, but that was the one thing she was not supposed to have. Late one night, Sayward awoke to see Achsa crawling into the cabin with the kettle. She had drunk her fill from the run and had brought water back in the kettle. After that Achsa got well.

As a child, Louie Scurrah had acted as a decoy for Delawares on the warpath. When he came back to a small cabin nearby, the Lucketts expected to steer clear of him. He charmed Worth first with his woodsy tales, then Genny and Achsa, but there was always unspoken enmity between him and Sayward.

Sulie never returned after the day she was separated from Wyitt as they drove in the neighbor's cows. Worth was away at the time, and the trail was cold when he and Louie gathered some neighborhood men to beat the woods. They found Sulie's tracks leading to a bark playhouse in a grove of trees, with a bit of her dress as a cover for a play trencher, but they could not find tracks leading out. Close by there were Indian trails, but they were also cold.

With Sulie gone, Worth went too. He thought he might follow the Indian tracks west.

The feeling between Louie and Sayward was not softened when Sayward, after finding Louie with Genny in the woods, told him it was time for him to marry Genny. He took Genny down the river and married her with good grace, but before long, his itching foot took him off more and more often.

Louie got Wyitt a rifle to help kill meat for Sayward's cabin. The first day he had it, Wyitt wounded a buck. Standing over the animal to slit its throat, he suddenly found himself hoisted aloft. The deer tried to shake him loose, but Wyitt was able to kill it when it tired. His clothes were torn to ribbons, and he was badly cut. Sayward, realizing that she had another woodsy on her hands and thankful for the meat he brought, said nothing.

Finally Louie went off to the English lakes with Achsa. Sayward did not know until later that they left the very night the painter tried to claw his way down Genny's chimney. Genny burned everything in the house that night to keep the painter from coming into the cabin. When Wyitt and Sayward found her, she did not recognize them. At last, under Sayward's care, Genny came back to her senses.

At a sober wedding of old folks, Jake Tench decided it was time to get a wife for solitary Portius Wheeler, a former Bay State lawyer. When the girl Jake picked shied off, Sayward told Jake that she would marry Portius. Jake brought Portius to Sayward's cabin where, under the influence of brandy, Portius went through the marriage ceremony. When neighbors tried to put him to bed with Sayward, however, he turned tail and ran. Jake brought him back at dawn. Although Sayward told him she would not hold him against his will, Portius stayed with her.

Together they cut down trees for a garden patch. The neighbors brought teams to snake out the logs and to plow. Portius treated Sayward with gentle deference, and she was happy when she looked forward to her firstborn.

Critical Evaluation:

As a lone novel, THE TREES is an uncomplicated story of the life and feelings of an early pioneer family. When read with the other two novels of Conrad Richter's trilogy, THE FIELDS and THE TOWN, it becomes part of a commentary on progress in early America and its effects upon the land and its people.

Although written in the third person, much of the story involves Sayward's thoughts and feelings about her family and her home. Her attitudes and philosophy develop during three stages of her life: as a young, dutiful daughter, as a "big sister" in the role of mother, and as a wife to Portius Wheeler. Although illiterate, Sayward displays an understanding of people that even trained psychologists would find difficult. This perception enriches the portrayals of other characters and leaves no doubt that this is Sayward's story.

Although with less depth than with Sayward, Richter also gives considerable insight into the behavior and thoughts of the family's other members. Each individual represents a different response to life on the new and diminishing frontier. Jary cannot face the realities of pioneer life and gives up, physically and mentally; Worth and Wyitt are not satisfied to stay in one place, remaining only from loyalty to family; Genny is the gentle lady who insists that civilities can exist in the wilderness; Achsa is as wild, irresponsible, and stubborn as the thick forest growth; Sulie is the lost child, not quite old, wise, or strong enough to survive; and Sayward is the mainstay—dependable, hardworking, and accepting of her fate.

The trees, as representative of all nature, are the other leading characters in the story. To Worth and Wyitt, the forest is the home of animals to hunt and the only place of privacy for man; but, to Sayward and the other homesteaders, trees are villains preventing the easy cultivation of fields. THE TREES traces Sayward's gradual victory over the stubborn growth around her. It is a story of a determined people and of their love, labor, and courage.

One of the most interesting characteristics of the book is the use Richter has made of early pioneer language as it was spoken, not as it was written. This is only one proof of the authenticity of the facts he used in writing a new and effective type of regional story. No other novel conveys so realistically what the first settlers must have felt when they faced the timbered wilderness on the frontier, the barrier of trees that shut out the sky and gave protection to animals and human enemies. THE TREES is a pioneer story of simple human warmth and vigor.

Bibliography

  • Barnes, Robert J. Conrad Richter. Austin, Tex.: Steck-Vaughn, 1968.
  • Carpenter, Frederic I. "Conrad Richter's Pioneers: Reality and Myth." College English 12 (1950): 77-84.
  • Cowan, William. "Delaware Vocabulary in the Works of Conrad Richter." In Papers of the Twenty-ninth Algonquian Conference, edited by David H. Pentland. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1998.
  • Edwards, Clifford D. Conrad Richter's Ohio Trilogy. The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton, 1970.
  • Flanagan, John T. "Conrad Richter: Romancer of the Southwest." Southwest Review 43 (1958): 189-196.
  • Gaston, Edwin W., Jr. Conrad Richter. Rev. ed. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.
  • Johnson, David R. Conrad Richter: A Writer's Life. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.
  • Kohler, Dayton. "Conrad Richter's Early Americana." College English 7 (1947): 221-228.

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