I work with books. Working at the public library exposes me to a wide range of topics and genres. This can be a little overwhelming at times, especially for a person like me who has far too many interests for his own good. I recently found myself stuck in one genre too long. I had just wrapped up Patrick Rothfuss’ first king killer book, The Name of the Wind, which had followed a reread of A Game of Thrones and one or two other fantasy based stories. I needed to take a turn toward reality. So, I picked up Conrad Richter’s The Trees, a pioneering story based in the Ohio River Valley. I was not disappointed.
The book came highly recommended by one my regular readers on the bookmobile. It had the look of some old wholesome Laura Ingalls Wilder nonsense (with apologies to Wilder fans) and certainly not something I would read. So I picked it up one day and expected to speed through it, almost on a complete whim. What I didn’t expect was an intense and starkly realistic portrayal of frontier life.
The novel follows the Luckett family as they set out from Pennsylvania to the Ohio River valley. I was never clear of the exact year, but clues put the story between 1790 and 1820. The Ohio River valley is a vast unsettled wilderness full of trees, Indians, traders, and many other wild creatures. Within the first few chapters, Jary Luckett, the family matriarch, dies. This leaves the motherly responsibilities to Sayward, the eldest daughter.
Sayward is the most important character in the book. Most of what we see as readers is filtered through Sayward’s eyes. It falls to Sayward to keep the family together when they’re abandoned by their father, Worth Luckett. It’s Sayward who brings her younger sister Genny back to the family after she’s abused and abandoned by her husband. It’s Sayward who we, as readers, want to see thriving in the end.
I was surprised by how engaging and intense this book was. At first I was a little put off by the writing style. It uses a vernacular that takes some getting used to. The descriptive language is loaded with archaic terms and the dialogue is largely phonetic. It works, though, to insert us into this uncharted wilderness. Two particular chapters stand out as demonstrations of the intensity of the words and plot coming together. The first, when the Luckett family is struck by an illness, likely malaria, and the fate of one member remains in doubt with each turn of the page. The second is when the youngest daughter, Sulie, is lost in the woods. These moments bring darkness to the tale that contributes to its realism.
This book impressed upon me the value of keeping a wide stream of interests when it comes to literature. I meet so many people who stay within their own comfort zones, whether that’s paranormal vampire romance, James Patterson’s latest best-sellers, or the pure vanilla sweetness of Danielle Steel. And for some people, they will never leave that zone. But for those of us with a little more of the pioneering spirit, there are many great unread treasures to be discovered. Conrad Richter’s The Trees is one of those great treasures.