The novel is set at the edge of the Pennsylvania wilderness in the years 1710 to 1715, where, as English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote not many years previously, “the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.“ He was writing about the condition of man during a time of war: “Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent of the time, wherein men live without other security, that what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall….no Knowledge of the face of the Earth, no account of time, no Arts, no Letters, no Society, and which is worst of all, continual feare, and danger of violent death[.]” Was not too the colonist at war--with his own past, with the wilderness? One could freeze to death if unsheltered overnight, die of an Indian arrow, starve, not live past infancy for any number of reasons, find oneself lost in a vast wilderness. A young woman is kidnapped out of her parental home by two men on horseback. A wounded man has his leg amputated by the banks of an unnamed river. A woman loses her husband in a skirmish with Indians and beyond her grief she knows that their homestead and all they had worked toward will fail.
The colonists at this time were still loyal to the British, even though, as the novel states, “[t]he Crown was well-known for its disrespect of the colonials. The British thought the colonials were cowards for fighting like the Indians, hiding behind trees and rocks and other points of concealment. They loathed their homegrown brethren.” People were suspicious of each other; a man who visited another man’s house (or more likely his meager cabin) did not dismount his horse without assuring first that he would be safe on foot. A man who stayed at an inn remained armed, even locked in his room at night. Pierre Laux, working in his blacksmith’s shed, is greeted by a traveler, Lawrence Kraymer, who is lost, having taken a wrong turn in the wilderness, and after some hesitation Pierre allows him to sleep in his barn. Two of the sons are sent on an errand to invite Lawrence to dinner, while the third, the eldest, keeps watch outside. No one takes chances. But men and women have taken the biggest chance of their lives in coming there.
The idea of a patrimony is thin: people are starting anew. The novel doesn’t follow the waves of immigrants who crossed the Atlantic to Massachusetts and other parts of New England, for example, in the early 1600s, or the many waves of immigrants who came to those shores over time. Lawrence Kraymer has no patrimony, no community; he is the illegitimate son of a woman whom we know only as having died of a “coughing disease.” His grandfather, who does not treat him like kin, makes him work in his Philadelphia brewery, and at his death Lawrence inherits it. Pierre Laux’s father, a seigneur, has not returned from a journey north to have an audience with the French king, during the years of warfare between Protestants in the south and Catholics in the north. Pierre’s mother dies of deliberate starvation. At age 13, Pierre, his parents gone, flees the advancing soldiers of the north and boards a ship to the colonies.
People want families, children, shelter, to raise food and have ordered lives. They want to live without fear. This perhaps is the real beginning of a nation. The men all carry guns. There are a few little towns, Watertown and Kinderville, with a sheriff and a few deputies; the minister of a reformed church; the owner of a dry goods store. But mostly people live beyond these tenuous structures of the civilized world. The sheriff, the minster, the owner of the dry goods store help Pierre understand that law and order, faith, and common decency help reveal and solidify something about a man’s nature. But finally Pierre realizes it himself, “his own truer nature.” That he does not want to bequeath a past of violence onto his sons. We learn from the Lenape Indian, John, whose father was white: “Skilled as he was in the wild, the woods were different than what he remembered as a child. The Europeans changed everything they touched, with their hunters tramping into the backcountry, shooting game the natives relied upon to survive, and the settlers’ unfenced cattle and pigs foraging in native gardens. The newcomers couldn’t live with the forest. They had to alter it, turning ancestral lands into something John no longer recognized, and for him, entering the fringe of the settlement was like taking a plunge from a high rock into a pool of murky water.” But maybe the novel is telling us that if a nation must be built, a nation of men and women who have imposed themselves on this land, then a family such as Pierre’s should be its compass.
Pierre and Lawrence are brought together by Lawrence’s love of Pierre’s daughter Catharine. One man seems to want to recreate a past that the other has fled; Lawrence, desiring to be “a man of substance,” builds a chateau for his bride. But Pierre knows that what one can build in the physical world because of an inheritance or what in the physical world one would have inherited is not the true thing, the embodiment of the true life. Destruction visits both, on either side of the ocean, one by soldiers, the other by happenstance. Where is the way to a true life? Lawrence is a seeker, searching for something beyond the tumult and roughness of Philadelphia and his brewer’s trade. He finds love in the wilderness, in Catharine, and the idea of a fixed point, a home. But perhaps Lawrence has put too much of himself, his idea of who he is, into his home. Pierre is a seeker in another way, of his own family, his own kin, this center; a man on a horse with his two younger sons on a mission to bring his eldest son, who has been away unexpectedly overnight, back into the shelter of their household. Pierre is a generation older than Lawrence, and bearing equal burdens from the past. He has learned more about and from the New World, what can change one if one is not careful to know who one is. So that later, when you are alone in another kind of wilderness, of your own making, a man on a horse comes for you to bring you home as well.
-MaryEllen Beveridge, author of After the Hunger: Stories