Opening with Daniel Dickinson, his new wife, and his five children leaving the Quaker settlement they call home after Daniel's shunning by the community for marrying his young servant after his wife's untimely death, the family leaves behind all that anchors them in life and sets out on a hard journey to a new home they must carve out of the western Virginia wilderness for themselves. That they are completely unequipped for this new life and will make mistake after mistake in this new place is immediately evident in the narrative. Daniel knows nothing about the woods around them; he is no farmer, and in fact seems fairly unskilled and uniformed about the hardships he's going to put his family and himself through. It is a fool's errand on which he has embarked and one that will spawn unrelenting misery and tragedy after tragedy. Daniel's poor choices are only compounded when he takes the only cash he has to a farm implement auction and instead of buying tools, ends up buying a slave named Onesimus, having to forfeit his favorite mare, a horse that was to help him establish his farm in order to pay for the slave he doesn't want. His intention of eventually earning enough money to buy back his horse and to free Onesimus, while morally righteous, is a plan even less well-conceived, given his general ineptitude for this harsh life, than his plan to move the family into the wilderness in the first place.
Unfolding slowly over a number of years, the narrative is told by a rotating cast of characters. It is hard to tell which character is intended to carry the story as just when the mind and motivation of the character narrating starts to come into focus, the novel changes perspective and moves on in time. Add to this the fact that none of the characters are particularly appealing, every last one of them accepts being a doormat at each turn, perhaps nurtured by patriarch Daniel's weak and frustrating passivity. He wants to hold onto his dearly held Quaker beliefs but instead of lending him a strength and stature, he becomes a pitiful mockery of a principled person, leading not only the other characters to be frustrated by him but also the reader as well. Certainly the life that the family leads is a hard, brutal, and uncivilized one but the tone of the entire novel is relentlessly grim and unbending. Daniel's flaws help to explain and justify his children's attraction and allure to violence at odds with his half-hearted teachings and make the resulting tragedies inevitable. But over all, the book does a good job showing the soul-destroying power of the frontier and the difficult life that anyone choosing to try and tame it would have faced. Historically the novel seems mostly accurate although one bit that was glaringly wrong to me and made me shake my fist at the sloppiness of the passage has a large green log being thrown onto a fire and immediately blazing with flame. This does not happen with green wood. Seasoned and aged? If the fire is hot enough to sustain a round log, sure. Green wood? Not a chance in this world. And while complaining about a detail like this might seem to be nitpicking, this is a time and a place where wood fires are vital to survival and so it's not an insignificant error. This is definitely not a novel for anyone looking for a story of redemption or hope and glimmers of humor or even contentment are completely missing as well. It is a depressing and downtrodden tale from first to last.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book to review.