Book Review: The Landbreakers by John Ehle

on Apr 23 in Reviews by

All that lies about us is foreign to us yet here we are, come together, and closer will we come.

In the early sixties growing up, I spent a good deal of time imagining my little suburban neighborhood three hundred years earlier when only animals and indigenous people populated the land and white men hadn’t begun cutting and clearing and inventing things to improve their lots. Every boy has inside him a time traveler; you look up into the heavens on a starry night and ponder the notions of time, death and infinity. I couldn’t help myself. Until girls and sex appeared on my radar, enchanted by books like Treasure Island, Johnny Tremain and the biography of Daniel Boone, I routinely tried entering the world of my forefathers and mothers.

Of course I idealized the life of settlers. Fictional boys in stories did not have depressive mothers forcing them to play nicely in dark houses with little sisters. And settler boys had real tasks they had to perform that had real consequences — a modicum of schooling yes — but no tedious chores like taking out the garbage or mowing the lawn. It was exciting to think that in another time right here in my own background, a skinny little sheltered kid like me could have helped build a cabin before and protect my family from things like typhoid, TB and bear attacks.

Many lifetimes have passed since then. These days, it’s hard to even have a sense of what life was like back then that isn’t either overly sentimental or overly cynical, laced with the awareness that while some of what settlers did was good and necessary, much of it has lead us into a quagmire with the ever darkening specter of Game Over blinking phosphorescent green on the black horizon. In this post-modern era, everything seems to fall into one of two categories: parable or eulogy.


The Landbreakers, written in 1964 by John Ehle, is the story of a ragtag band of settlers from the generation that settled a particular region in the Appalachian Mountains just after the Revolutionary War. It is not ironic. It does not require adherence to a position about indigenous people or the environment. It is the kind of book you inhabit between sittings with considerable nuance that is implied by dialogue and a deft and distant third person narrator. It is raw and full and full of fine detail and fresh language, even if it is the language of doing, not reflecting, and man’s true nature remains as opaque and violent as nature.

It begins in 1779 with Mooney and Imy Wright, a young Scotch-Irish couple who upon finishing their terms as indentured servants in a household in Philadelphia make their way south with only a a horse, a calf, a gun, an iron pot and a couple suits of clothes looking for land to settle. Because they can afford nothing, they continue west from Virginia to stake a claim to the hills of what is now western North Carolina.

The first thirty-five pages describes their arrival, the cutting of trees and building of a cabin, how they planted food and protected themselves. It draws you in by presenting such practical dilemmas and untouched beauty so as to be alternately fascinated and appalling. Then at the end of the first section, Imy, the wife, succumbs to illness, leaving her husband completely alone in the wild, setting up the central narrative.

The Landbreakers is the story of settlers who join Wright: Tinkler Harrison, a wealthy, middle-aged man, his pale young bride, Belle, his handsome daughter and her two sons, Belle’s father, Ernest Plover and his coterie of daughters, a German couple with their son and a band of ne’er do wells who like to drink and shoot wolves. Against the dark outline of mountains and the beasts that inhabit it, we watch them all pull up on foot with livestock, tools, wagons, and their individual stories.

That I am reading this now is rather ironic, and not just because I’ve resettled to western North Carolina. I am at fifty-two doing the thing I did as a kid. Only this time, instead of just reading and daydreaming, I’m attempting to get comfortable on a parcel of land in the mountains with minimal creature comforts and my wits, such as they are, having been honed from four decades of creature-comfort and high-density city life. Like a little kid looking at grown-ups through a keyhole, I read and annotated sections that described hunting, animal husbandry, tanning, bee-keeping, gathering medicinal herbs, making soap and building without tools. In addition to being a damn good story, The Landbreakers is, for me, like finding the source material for countless articles in Mother Earth News. On a deeper level, beyond my stated goals of heading to the mountains to write and to leave a legacy to my children as the world begins to break down, I am moved to inscribe this sentence, spoken by the narrator over my door: “A person becomes part of what he does, grows into what grows around him, and if he works the land, he comes to be the land, and owner of and slave to it.

I suppose you could summarize The Landbreakers as a study of human ambition applied to the wild. There are vivid characters who highlight different elements: the petty and acquisitive Tinkler Harrison, Lacey Pollard, Harrison’s son-in-law, who years earlier leaves Lolly, his wife and two children to find opportunity, and the stoic, inarticulate Mooney Wright, a man of action. By the end of the novel, which spans a period of five years, we are reading a contemplation of the meaning of work, place, family and community.

The family and the clearing and the crops and the stock and the tools were part of the same thing. The family and the place were the same thing and could not be separated from the other. One could not understand the family without knowing about the land and their work on it and plans for it and one could not know the land with any real understanding without knowing this family of people. They were dusty with the land; the grit of the land was in them. Their work, which was done together, was the chief meaning of their family lives…. Work to do—that was the same as saying there was living to do, and planning to do, and birthing to watch over.

One after another hardship presents itself in the form of bears, wolves, violent storms, bad weather and vile acts. Each is met with a kind of quiet perseverance that is vaguely familiar to us moderns though considerably simpler and quieter.

In late January a blizzard from the northwest struck the mountain country and Mooney brought the cow and one of the horses into the cabin for the night to keep warm. They stood, thankful statues, huddled together like mates, their heads lowered, looking suspiciously from time to time at the ever-flickering orange fire before which their master squatted and murmured to himself, commenting on the rumble of the wind and the loud shattering sounds, like explosions, of frozen trees bursting on the mountain.

The novel concludes with an event that is intended to put the settlement on the map, to make something of it that will endure, something that will afford future generations more opportunity than the original settlers found, but alas, like Faulkner’s novels of the south, it is a tragedy, both outward and inward, made even more so by characters who are only vaguely aware of the goings on inside their own minds.

Instead, they are doers who stumble forward or backward in the pursuit of joy and tangible things, pausing only briefly to try to make sense of things. Near the end of his life, a man from whom we have come to expect little besides meanness and aggression says, A man dreams what he dreams, that’s all, and might be anything at all, for he’s all tied up with lies, anyhow, and worries. My lord, we come out of a narrow opening in a woman and try to get our eyes to see something, not knowing at all what the world is, or our parents are, or we are. And now I’m nigh to old-age death and I don’t know yet what the world is, or I am. I know it’s been a pleasure to be alive for these years, though I don’t know what being alive is. I might very well die in this chair afore I ever stop looking at that river, but I don’t know what death is.”

In plot, pacing, character development, dialogue, narrative voice, setting and arc, this novel is broad, rich and textured. Like the giant bear that appears now and then, it raises itself, ambles around, covering vast distances effortlessly and then lays down. It concludes with Mooney Wright, the original settler, standing in a field. “He clicked his tongue at the horse, took the plow handles firmly in hand, and put his weight on the plow handles and weighted the blade, and the plow moved, the earth turned, the dark earth turned and the smell of the earth came into the air and the row opened to him and yielded to him and was ready. It stays with you — the iron plow entering the earth — long after you close the cover, the story, the people and the land.

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