Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Land Breakers by John Ehle

It was not that the family was making a machine that they could use; the family was the machine.  The family and the clearing and the crops and the stock and the tools were part of the same thing.  The family and the place were part of the same thing and could not be separated one from the other.  One could not understand the family without knowing about the land and their work on it and plans for it, and one could not know the land with any real understanding without knowing this family of people.  They were dusty with the land; the grit of the land was in them.  Their work, which was done together, was the chief meaning of their family lives.

I had been saving John Ehle's The Land Breakers for our recent trip to the Great Smoky Mountains.  There are old villages, long since emptied--not abandoned, really, since their inhabitants didn't leave voluntarily--in the coves between mountains there.  They are places of great beauty but also great isolation, a few cabins scattered at the edge of a clearing, separated from civilization by difficult mountain passes.  They seem impossibly historical, but they are more recent than the mountain settlement described in The Land Breakers.  When the protagonist, Mooney Wright, buys a small parcel of land in the North Carolina mountains, the year is 1779, and he's the first white man to make his home there.

Mooney arrives with his wife Imy, both Irish immigrants sold into indentured servitude for whom the mountains offer independence and self-sufficiency.  Imy quickly succumbs to an illness, and Mooney finds himself bereft and aimless in a new world that seems indifferent to him, if not hostile.  But that changes quickly when a rich Virginian, Tinkler Harrison, arrives with his wife in tow.  (She's also his niece, so, gross, but I guess you can get away with that kind of thing miles and miles from the nearest town.)  Tinkler brings with him several slaves and his daughter Lorry, as well as her two boys.  Soon his son-in-law Ernest Plover follows with his beguiling young daughter Pearlamina.  Others are soon to follow.

Mooney is instantly attracted to Mina, but comes to realize that she doesn't share his vision for settling the land.  Imagining a mill, a springhouse, a town, in the valley below, he asks, "Can't you see it, Mina?"  And she responds: "I don't see nothing... There's nothing down there 'cept trees."  It's the older Lorry who promises to be a better wife, and soon he takes her into his house.  Their "wedding," such as it is, comprises Mooney telling Lorry's sons to pack their things and bring them up to his house.  There is no ceremony here, because there is no society; any other kind of wedding would be essentially meaningless.  Here in the mountains it doesn't matter that Lorry is technically already married, her husband having disappeared somewhere in Kentucky.  (Do you think, perhaps, the novel might be setting it up so that the absconded husband appears suddenly and throws the fragile ecosystem of the settlement into chaos?)

Much of The Land Breakers is devoted to a thorough and loving depiction of the practices of early Appalachian settlers.  If you would like to know how they made shoes out of hog leather, or what sort of herbs they gathered and for what purposes, this is the book for you.  The passion of Ehle, a western North Carolina native, for the history of the region makes these slice-of-life details engaging more often than not.  But danger is always threatening the stability of the settlement.  An enormous black bear, for example, is raiding the stock.  The bear himself is a violent threat, of course, but the depredation of the stock, when survival is so precarious, is as frightening as his jaws and teeth.  A long bear hunt serves for the novel's climax.  But there are other dangers: in one particularly terrifying section, a pair of settlers wake up to find the floor of their cabin covered in writhing venomous snakes searching for warmth.

Mooney imagines the whole mountain, with its wolves and bears and panthers and diseases, as a kind of singular beast that stalks him and his family.  But he also has a vision for taming it, a vision that the hardworking Lorry shares.  They are the kind of ideal Jeffersonian yeoman farmers, breaking the land of the new nation at the moment of its birth.  Ehle clearly idolizes them, and contrasts them with plutocratic jerks like Tinkler and lazy romantics like Ernest.  And yet their hard work and vision is no assurance that everything will be all right.  The novel ends with a failed attempt to drive the settlers' stock into town.  All the animals, confused and frightened by the storm, leap to their deaths.  (This reminded me of Far From the Madding Crowd.)  The settlers must return empty-handed, close to starvation, and yet their determination remains.  This was, after all, the way they started in this place, and they will do it again.

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