Friday, May 23, 2014

Sayward Luckett Wheeler

One of the great American heroines hardly anyone knows is Sayward Luckett. At fifteen Sayward walks with her family from Lancaster, Pennsylvania into the Ohio Valley. They carry their few possessions on their backs and set themselves up in a lean-to under the great trees: “a sea of solid treetops broken only by some gash where deep beneath the foliage an unknown stream made its way. As far as the eye could reach, this lonely forest sea rolled on and on till its faint blue billows broke against an incredibly distant horizon.” Sayward is the principal character in Conrad Richter’s trilogy The Trees (1940), The Fields (1946), and The Town (1950), sometimes published together as The Awakening Land. She lives from approximately 1780 to 1860.

Pioneer Courage Sculpture, Blair Buswell and Edward Fraughton

Sayward’s father is a “woodsie” who feeds his family by hunting game. Her mother is consumptive and lives only a few months after they arrive in Ohio. The four younger children look to Sayward to keep the family together, especially after their father starts disappearing. This Sayward does, despite the loss of Sulie (to the Delaware; when she is found later she will not speak to her sisters) and the marriage of her sister Genny to a rogue who really loves her sister Achsa. Her brother Wyitt takes after Sayward’s father and is hardly willing to sleep inside the log house, though he does keep them in meat when their father leaves for good.

When Sayward sees that her brothers and sisters have grown up, she gets lonesome. In their hijinks, a group of townsmen decide they should marry off “the solitary.” “You can bring him to my cabin,” says Sayward. She has noticed that though he drinks heavily, when Portius Wheeler makes a speech on Independence Day, everyone takes note. An educated man, a “Bay State lawyer,” no one knows why Portius is letting himself go to seed in their little pioneer town.

Though Portius lights out the first night when the men try to put him to bed with his new wife, he returns, telling her, “Let us not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment.” He and Sayward make a good match and have many children. At first they work together to clear trees and make a farm. As the community grows, more people need Portius’ skill as a lawyer. Sayward, who is illiterate, feels Portius should stick to his books and teach the first school, making use of his education, while she works to enlarge the farm, learning weaving and other skills.

After eight children, Sayward decides she doesn’t want any more and says she won’t sleep in Portius’ bed. She is the last to know when Portius takes up with a schoolteacher who has a child and is married off to Jake Tench, one of the murkier characters of the town. When she does learn of it, Sayward says nothing but goes out, yokes up the oxen and sets herself to plowing. “When this inside of her wore off a little against Portius, she reckoned she’d better move over here for the night … Of course, never had she thought she would sleep in Portius’ off-the-floor bed, and rather she wouldn’t, but you didn’t go on rathers in this life. She better go along quiet as she could now in her cherry yoke and bear her load.” Sayward and Portius soon have two more children, but the child the teacher bears also has a part in the story.

As the book continues, we see more of Sayward’s children. The community is changing. The children listen rapt as Portius tries to talk Sayward into giving up some land for a fine new house that Portius will put up with money from his Bay State family. “Her eyes mutinied and her lips got ropier, but never did she tell her true reason for not wishing to give up this cabin. It was deep down, a part of her flesh and bones, and hardly would Portius understand it, for he was of gentleman stock, used to riding and having things done for him. Now she was of common stock, used to walking where she wanted to go and working with her hands for what she got.”

When Portius runs out of money, Sayward is left to finish the mansion house. It feels strange to her. “She would have given a good deal to be back in the cabin, but she was only thankful she had a kitchen here. It helped her to start a fire and feel her own pots and pans in her hands. Here with the smell of mush and coffee over the fire, she believed she could come when she got homesick and find relief.”

Perhaps I identify with Sayward as the oldest of a bunch of siblings, but I also love her for her balance and sanity. Never for a moment does Sayward forget who she is and who Portius was when she took him as a husband. She has a lot to contend with in life, but she always stands on her own two, and together, she and Portius are enormously productive. In the way of my own family, hardly anything is discussed directly in Sayward’s family, but everyone, through observation and custom, knows how each other feels. Often what happens in a public gathering confirms what everyone knows is happening in private.

Richter acknowledges his use of historical books and manuscripts to develop the speech of the time. “This early, vigorous spoken language, contrary to public belief, had its considerable origin in the Northeastern states … [It should be] a living reminder of the great mother tongue of early America,” says Richter. Though the point of view shifts, it is Sayward’s story which took over the book. It is a wonderful embodiment of the history of the period. Richter was only ten years older than the much-admired Hemingway and Faulkner. I am hard-pressed to find as wonderful a female character in any of their work, however.