The Trees


Conrad Richter




Date Reviewed:

May 16, 2021

read The Trees by Conrad Richter because David McCullough (who wrote the introduction to The Trees in the edition that I read) described it in such positive terms in his book Brave Companions. The Trees is the first book in a trilogy, but I doubt I will be reading the next two volumes, I didn’t like this book all that much. Your opinion may vary: the third book in the trilogy won the Pulitzer Prize, so it appeals to some readers. The Trees is definitely “literature” – the plot consists of a series of events in the lives of the Luckett family, but there is no underlying quest or goal; nor does the narrative build to a climax. It just sort of stops.

The Trees begins with Worth Luckett leading his wife (Jary) and all of their children – Sayward (oldest daughter), Genny (daughter), Acsha (daughter), Wyitt (son) and Sulie (youngest daughter) on a long journey by foot into the Ohio country at the end of the eighteenth century. The Lucketts are leaving their comfortable cabin in Pennsylvania because Worth can no longer find enough wildlife to shoot. Killing animals is apparently Worth’s sole reason for existence. Anything that moves, Worth will shoot it.

The Luckett’s carry all their meager belongings into Ohio. In a vast forest, they decide to settle and build a cabin. Worth proves quite adept with his axe, felling trees and building the cabin (it even has a window!). But once the cabin is built, Worth resumes his maniacal pursuit of shooting animals. The family apparently subsists entirely on meat, they don’t even attempt to plant any seeds or harvest roots or nuts or berries.

I found that the interpersonal family emotions were surprisingly weak. I expected a tight knit family that would fiercely look out for each other, united in their quest to conquer a hostile wilderness, but instead their family ties are not strong, everyone is inclined to go their own path as soon as possible. When Jary, the mother, is stricken with a fatal illness, the children seem to treat it as a spectacle – they hardly seem to grieve at all when Jary is laid to rest in her “bury hole”. Nor does there seem to be much affection or concern between the siblings. I don’t recall anyone weeping in this novel, despite all the hardship and tragedy they endure. Nor do they say "I love you" or celebrate and support each other. Maybe emotions were more reserved in the late eighteenth century, but this detached manner makes it hard to like any of the characters.

Richter did a lot of research when writing The Trees. He read many letters and journals from late 18th century America so that he could accurately portray the vocabulary and speech mannerisms of the time. This adds a lot of realism to the book, a lot of the behaviors and actions of the Luckett family seem to be authenticate for woodsfolk of that time (not that I know enough to spot anachronisms). Occasionally, this results in opaque dialogue that is hard to interpret, though usually the meaning of their words could be gleaned from context.

By the end of the book, Jary is dead and buried. Worth has wandered further west, abandoning his family – he sends a letter saying he is shooting buffalo – which is a curious thing, since neither Worth nor anyone in his family can read nor write. Sayward is married to a man she never met. Genny married a brutal man who then dumps her in order to elope with her younger sister, Achsa. This abandonment by her husband leaves Genny bereft of her senses. Wyitt is living in his “half cabin” and shooting as many animals as possible, just like his father. Sulie has disappeared into the vast woods and no trace of her was ever discovered. In the closing chapters, Sayward and her husband finally chop down some of the enormous trees to make a clearing where they can plant crops amongst the tree stumps (which they call tree “butts”).

Presumably, the rest of the trilogy continues the story of Sayward, because she seems to be the only Luckett still sane and stable when The Trees ends. But I won’t find out, because I don’t intend to read any more of Richter’s books. David McCullough has written a book, The Pioneers, which seems to cover the early westward settlers of America – McCullough probably tells the pioneer’s story better than Richter’s works, so perhaps I should read that instead.