Chapter 60: “The Town” by Conrad Richter (1951)

December17006I am, once again, unemployed. Which can only mean that it’s once again time to start pulling Pulitzers off the shelf, dusting the neglect off of them, and plowing through as many as I can before the next job offer comes around. The most recent novel to receive my mark of completion is Conrad Richter’s 1951 Pulitzer-winner, The Town.

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The Town is the third and concluding (and perhaps best-known) novel in Conrad Richter’s famous The Awakening Land trilogy—it did, after all, garner the Pulitzer Prize; this trilogy also includes the titles The Trees and The Fields. It wraps up the story of Sayward Luckett (Wheeler)—the brave and adventurous unmarried pioneer woman who travels from post-revolutionary Pennsylvania to the rugged wilderness of the Ohio River Valley. While blazing through her way through “the trees”, chopping them down to create “the fields”, and being the original citizen of Americus, “the town” that is born, the series takes Sayward from a young single woman, unexpectedly left with three sisters to raise, to a married woman who becomes a mother of seven.

The story and character of Sayward is, by all accounts, the epitome of feminist literature. She’s a dogged and determined woman who is entirely self-sufficient. One who doesn’t need a man to guide her or provide for her. Furthermore, she seems to embody the cloak of the universal mother—one who births a child, or a movement, or some other entity. She is the sustainer of life to her sisters, whom she raises; she is the giver of life to seven children, whom she raises and provides for and is ruthlessly dedicated to even until her death bed; and she is the founder of an entire civilization, which she eventually comes to loathe. All the while never asking for a handout, never needing assistance.

She is not a perfect wife, nor a perfect mother, nor a perfect character, actually, but she comes pretty damn close on all accounts.

What really struck me about her story, though (at least in this third and final volume of a trilogy about her), is how natural it is. At no point did I think Richter was forcing the story or writing with a heavy handedness. While Sayward may provide the a surefire feminist literary critique, I don’t think that was the intention of Richter.

I think his intention, in writing these stories, was providing a realistic look at pioneer life and to transport his audience to the time period. Everything about his writing—the dialogue, the setting, the narration, the writing style even—seems 100% bang-on. It’s a true period piece.

And I really don’t think he had any agenda or message in writing it. While some of his other Pulitzer-winning contemporaries that I’ve encountered so far (Booth Tarkington, Edna Ferber, Ernest Poole, Louis Bromfield, etc.) have a bone to pick with the direction society and humanity were taking, Richter just wants to tell a story. Sure, at the end of The Town the reader is left to believe that Sayward’s generation had it right, that the modernization of the world equaled the damnation of it; however, I think that message is background noise compared to 1) the story of Sayward, 2) the pioneer spirit, 3) the unbreakable bond of family, and 4) the plausibility of the thoughts, attitudes, and actions of the characters in their day and position.

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Somehow, these novels seem to know who I am and where I am in life. I swear, every time I scan the pages of one of these books, it’s like looking into a mirror.

The relationship between Chancey and his mother is so real, it could have been Richter recounting the relationship of another mother/son that he knew from real life. And their reconciliation at the end, while maybe not mutual, was very believable and heart touching.

In the past few weeks, I’ve read two novels that shared a similar ending, and, going a little further back, we can throw The Yearling into the mix as well. The Town, So Big, and The Yearling all end with a son reconciling with his mother (which, for me, being in my position, has been very difficult to get through); each of these novels seems to drive home the point “Mother knows best”; each of these novels, though, has a different way of tackling the issue.

In The Yearling, the son issues a formal apology to his mother and throws himself at her mercy; in So Big, the son doesn’t apologize to his mother, but eventually comes to the realization that she is a happier person in her hardscrabble life than he is in his posh life and, thus, concludes that he owes everything to her; in The Town, the son visits his mother on her deathbed and learns the revelation that it was his mother who was the secret contributor to his failing career—she was the only one who supported him all along, even when he had spat in her face, and he begins to wonder if maybe his mother’s generation had it right all along.

Each story has a similar conclusion, but only one of them is remotely believable—The Town.

I wish I could say that my mother and I will have this storybook conclusion. That, one day, I’ll realize all of the good she did for me and all the ways that she provided for me, and she and I will have a major reconciliation. I truly and honestly believe that will never happen. It’s true what they say, you only get one mother; but my response is and will always be, “Well ain’t that just my luck?”. If anything, these three story endings has only reinforced that belief.

So Big: my mother isn’t a happy person and never had to work for anything a day in her life; she married very wealthy men, divorced them, and lives off of their alimony. The Yearling: I’m not a dumb kid that can’t provide for myself; my relationship with my mother forced me to be resourceful and self-sustaining. The Town: again, my mother never provided for me; in fact, she stole from me then kicked me out of her life when I could no longer provide for her.

I hope that someday somebody will win a Pulitzer Prize for writing a story about my life.

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