Friday, November 28, 2014

Pulitzer Project: The Town

Like most of the books I've read as part of my Pulitzer project, The Town was a book I'd never heard of written by an author whose name sounded vaguely familiar but with whose work I was completely unfamiliar. I had a faint recollection of having seen books by Conrad Richter on library shelves but I was reasonably sure I'd never read any of them. If The Town is typical of his work, I may be feeling relieved.

That's actually an odd thing to say because The Town was definitely readable. I picked it up at the library on Tuesday and finished it last night: three evenings' worth of reading comes close to dropping into mind candy territory. Unlike some of the other "classics" I've had to struggle through, The Town did not feel like work. It just felt . . . lame.

I'll explain, but first a brief overview of the book. The Town is the final installment in a trilogy that included The Trees and The Fields. The three books chronicle the lives of a pioneer family that left the eastern United States at about the time of the American Revolution and settled in Ohio. The first book apparently details their arrival in the wilderness, the second one gets into their efforts at farming, and by book three civilization has arrived. The little settlement that began with just one family progresses from being a village to a town to an actual city and the county seat. The Town is told through the perspective of three members of the Wheeler family: Sayward Wheeler, the middle-aged wife of an attorney (Portius Wheeler), their youngest child, Chancey Wheeler, and Rosa Tench, the illegitimate daughter of Portius Wheeler. Chancey and Rosa are approximately the same age. It doesn't take a whole lot of imagination for the reader to figure out where that particular story line is going to lead, especially when neither child seems to be particularly grounded in reality. There's a lot of tiptoeing around and dropping of various hints, but no adult seems to have brains enough to simply say in plain English, hey, young idiots, you're brother and sister. Naturally, by the time anyone does come right out and tell them why they shouldn't be hanging out together and acting like they're courting, the damage has been done and the inevitable tragedy results.

Of course, if anyone had bothered to be blunt with Chancey and Rosa when they were still young, the book would have been a lot shorter.

In addition to spending multiple chapters hinting at the risk of an incestuous love affair, the book looks at life from the perspective of Sayward Wheeler, the self-styled "woodsy" girl who likes to think of herself as a simple pioneer but ends up being the richest person in town as well as mother of the governor of the state. She's annoyed when her husband talks her into selling off pieces of the farmland she inherited from her parents so that the town can grow and a canal can be built, and she's also annoyed when Portius insists they build a good brick house and move out of the simple log cabin she'd spent most of her life in. When the book begins, Sayward has hit menopause. She's borne nine children and, at the ancient age of approximately 40, is wondering if she's going to live long enough to see her youngest and frailest son, Chancey, survive past childhood. She does, of course. She doesn't die until the eve of the Civil War. Along the way she finds her sister who had been lost in the woods decades earlier and had been presumed dead, sees one of her daughters end up married to an English aristocrat, and watches most of her other children grow up to be successful adults who marry and provide her with grandchildren.

Conrad Richter reportedly engaged in exhaustive research while writing this book and the others in the trilogy. He reviewed hundreds of documents to get a sense for the speech patterns and dialects of the early 19th century. His work has been praised for the accuracy of its portrayals of frontier life and folkways.

So why, if the book was well-researched and decently written, was I left with an overall impression of "meh"? Maybe it was the totally cliched incest subplot. Maybe it was the folksy way Sayward expressed herself -- maybe it was accurate, but it also came across as twee. Not as bad as some books that lay the colorful dialect on with a trowel, but still not quite believable. It was just a tad too cute. Or maybe it was all the weird names too many of the characters have. Did people back in early 19th century Ohio really pick names every bit as odd as some of the brain-dead names we see today? A couple of the Wheeler kids have normal names but "Sooth" and "Dezia" aren't among them. I can accept that some names were just misspelled versions of common names -- Jary instead of Gerry or Jerry, for example -- but there are limits.

Okay. Where do I rank this one? Right in the middle of the pack. It didn't stink, it was quite readable, and it wasn't work. On the other hand, it also didn't particularly impress me. On a scale of 1 to 10, it's probably a 5. Would I recommend it to other readers? Not really. I'd have to throw in a bunch of qualifiers. You know, "It's easy reading but it's too cliched." "It's easy reading but the characters aren't really believable." Etc.

Next up on the list: The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk. That is a book I have heard of. In fact, the book is so well-known that I was sure the L'Anse Public Library would have it in its collection. Nope. All those Danielle Steeles must take up too much shelf space because this is still another novel I have to order through Interlibrary Loan. I am happy to have a local public library, but, holy wah, there's a lot of low quality dreck taking up way too much space on its shelves.


  1. It seems like these days I mostly just read food labels to see how much fiber they have in them.

  2. It's amazing how a diet of good reading can show you just how bad the dreck is.I remember reading Richter when I was a kid, probably too young. You are inspiring me to get back to the library.

  3. LOVE BBC's comment. Too funny. These are not books I would be tempted to read anyhow. The Caine Mutiny on the other hand...


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