Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Great Meadow by Elizabeth Madox Roberts

First published in 1930, this was Roberts’ fourth novel. She was a scholar, poet and school teacher, who wrote this book based on her own ancestors’ journey to Kentucky from Virginia in the years of the American Revolution. Roberts’ writing was well received in her time, but the ensuing years saw a steady decline of interest in her works. Which is a pity, as The Great Meadow is a story of pioneer life that feels immediate and firsthand while also keeping the atmosphere of its time. The story is told in the third person about Diony, an 18-year-old girl who gets married and goes with her new husband Berk to Kentucky. Instead of in a wagon train, their journey is over the mountains on packhorses, fraught with danger of fording rivers, horses bolting or becoming injured, and the ever present threat of Indian attack. Diony is the heroine, and it is her thoughts and desires that are the focus of the story. We slowly understand how people lived and their ways of seeing things through the ordinary give and take of conversation, with their ways of teasing each other and the words and accents used at the time. While a lot of historical novels make you feel that if you were dressed right, you could fit right into another time and century, Roberts makes you see that while you might understand each other’s words (most of them), eons of sensibility divide our time from theirs. It is a meditative book, with Diony having been schooled early on, by her father, in the philosophy that things have no existence without a mind to register their presence. There is a wonderful play on this idea, with the wilderness views Diony sees on her journey described as being prepared for her seeing them, by some mind greater and more far reaching than her own. Although the tone and the philosophical quality of the narrative require more effort of the reader than a present day novel, this effort is richly rewarded, with abundant drama and dazzling depictions of the land that was to be Kentucky.

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