It took me a long time to read this novel by Annie Dillard, not because it isn’t good, but because the prose demands a slow reading and there’s little driving action to propel the reader forward. (It didn’t help that I also had a couple of books coming due at the library and a soon-to-expire e-galley that I really wanted to read.)
The nice thing, however, is that the early sections of the novel read almost like a series of interlocking stories, set in chronological order. There’s one about a pioneer couple, the Fishburns, coming to the settlement of Whatcom in Washington State in 1855. Then there’s the story of John Ireland Sharp, a young man from the next generation of Whatcom settlers. Next, there’s Eustace and Minta, a Baltimore couple who come to the area in 1878. By the halfway point, the book has turned to Obenchain and Clare, children of the area’s early settlers, and the divergent stories become more closely intertwined.
I’ve seen people talk about books being plot-focused or character-focused, but The Living is neither. If anything, it’s setting-focused, with Whatcom and its fate being the thing that everything else spins around. Whatcom changes people, and as Whatcom changes, so does its people. With the earliest generations, death is always around the corner:
Women took fever and died from having babies, and babies died from puniness or the harshness of the air. Men died from trafficking in superior forces, like rivers and horses, bulls, steam saws, mill gears, quarried rock, or falling trees or rolling logs. Women died in rivers, too, and under trees and rockslides, and men took fevers, too, and fevers took men. Children lost their lives as other people did, as a consequence of their bodies’ material fragility; hard things smashed them, like trees and the ground when horses threw them, or they fell; they drowned in water; they sickened, and earaches wormed into their brains or fever from measles burned them up or pneumonia eased them out overnight. It was all the same and predictable except in detail, whether a heart collapsed and seized in an old woman, or a runaway buggy crushed a growing boy; the people took the boy’s death harder, for they longed to have him with them longer, and to see him grown and fruitful. They were not ready for him to die, but they knew for a fact that death was ready. Death was ready to take people, of any size, always, and so was the broad earth ready to receive them. A child’s death was a heartbreak—but it was no outrage, no freak, nothing not in the contract, and not really early, just soon.
But as the town grows and comforts increase, death becomes more distant, less expected. Beal Obenchain, who rejects the new town ways, believes that losing sight of death has made people overconfident, and he seeks to make death more present and give himself death’s power through murder and threats of murder. But the back and forth of progress is bigger than Beal Obenchain.
One truth that comes up again and again in the novel is that people’s power over their own fate and that of others is limited. It’s not just that death may come swiftly and suddenly. It’s that the promised railroad may never appear. It’s that floods wash away crops, and crashes wash away money. Unanticipated love ushers children away from parents, and all-too-predictable prejudices push people away from their best convictions. Life in this novel is full of epic forces, but the people are small in the face of it. Even the strong can be taken down by patient and persistent forces, like the fire lit within the massive trees in order to fell them.
I don’t mean to give the impression, however, that these are small, powerless people. Many of them have remarkable abilities to endure and adapt. One of my favorite characters, Minta, raised as a society girl in Baltimore, manages to survive the death of her husband and most of her children and the fiery destruction of her home and become a prosperous hops farmer and foster-mother to a family of Nooksak Indian children left in her care. I’m tempted to say that it’s Minta’s adaptability and strength that enables her to survive, and perhaps that true. But another character, John Ireland Sharpe, can’t cope with the way the world is changing around him and eventually retreats to an island hideaway. Summoning up massive inner strength is not the only way to survive, and no approach to life comes with a guarantee.
The novel ends with a group of characters taking a midnight swim in a pond with a rope swing. As they swing off the platform into the water, there’s nothing to see but darkness that gives away to the light of stars reflected on the water. The only thing to do is judge the moment and let go. Maybe that’s the way to exist in the world of The Living; just fling yourself against whatever light you can find in the darkness and hope for the best.