“The Awakening Land” by Conrad Richter

Author: Conrad Richter

LC Number 66-21362:

Copyright 1966, revised edition 1991

Review by Carolyn B. Leonard

The Awakening Land trilogy by Conrad Richter is a series of three novels that explore the lives of a white American frontier family in the Ohio Valley from the late 18th century to the middle of the 19th. The series consists of The Trees (1940), The Fields (1946), and The Town (1950); the third novel won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1951. These works established Richter as a major novelist of historical fiction. Richter studied rare collections of old manuscripts, letters, and records which demonstrated or documented the speech of late-18th- and early-19th-century residents to use the correct mode of speech.

First issued in a single hardcover volume in September 1966, by Knopf, the three books combined was adapted as a United States TV miniseries in 1978. Ohio University Press reissued the trilogy in paperback in 1991 as a  revised edition incorporating changes made in the TV adaptation.

This review begins with Book I - The Trees

The Trees (1940) introduces the Luckett family, who emigrate from “The Old Country on the Susquehanna” of Pennsylvania to the Ohio Valley wilderness about 1795, soon after the American Revolutionary War and the founding of the United States of America. 

This third-person narration is rich with folklore and suggestive of early backwoods speech. Told mostly from the point of view of the eldest daughter, Sayward, usually referred to as “Saird”, the novel reveals the heartbreaks and tenacity of exploring and settling a new land explores how the family carves a homestead from the forest in this new unsettled land, suffering many losses and hardships along the way. Worth Luckett is a "woodsy" who provides for his family by hunting wild animals for food and trading their pelts for other items they need. When Worth notices that the wild game is leaving the woods near their settlement, decides to leave for the “west” and drags a reluctant wife and children in their bare feet on a narrow and treacherous footpath to his dream in the forest.

Sayward values family above all else and she tries to hold the family together. Several members of her birth family, including her father, Worth, her brother Wyitt, and her sister Ascha eventually abandon the family home, with no attempt to send their sister word about their situations. Her mother dies and her baby sister, Sulie, becomes lost in the forest. Although Saird organizes search parties and uses every method available, the child is not found. She was not forgotten. Sayward always remembers these absent family members and holds them in her thoughts. 

Sayward’s angry feelings are symbolized by her attitude toward the trees of the forest. The original settlers cut these down in a wide area to develop their farmsteads and later the town of Americus. In the beginning, Sayward actually hates the trees, because of the backbreaking labor they required as settlers struggled to clear the land for farms and homes. Sayward’s unconventional marriage captures  the reader too.  

She assumes all responsibility for her younger siblings. Sayward marries a settler named Portius Wheeler, a lawyer known as "The Solitary" in an unusual wedding and marriage. He has migrated from New England for unstated reasons and lived  . The marriage of Sayward and Portius ultimately appears at this time to be successful.  At the book's conclusion, the couple has begun to clear the land of trees surrounding the cabin, in order to plant crops. Portius has come out of his shell and begun practicing law again; and Sayward is expecting their first child.

Stay tuned for Book II, The Fields.