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Review: The Land Breakers, by John Ehle
NY Review of Books, 2014 [reprint of 1964 edition], 345 pp. $18

In 1779, two young Americans of Scotch-Irish ancestry, Imy and Mooney Wright, settle in the North Carolina mountain wilderness and try to make a life for themselves as farmers. This simple premise, which provides no built-in tension between characters and develops as episodes rather than a conventional plot, would seem thin fare, as I’ve just described it.

Blue Ridge Mountains, seen from Deep Gap, western North Carolina (Photo by Ken Thomas, public domain; courtesy singout.org).

Blue Ridge Mountains, seen from Deep Gap, western North Carolina (Photo by Ken Thomas, public domain; courtesy singout.org).

But The Land Breakers is a very satisfying novel indeed, of many pleasures. The first and most obvious is the prose. To say that Ehle has the time and setting in his soul may be no understatement, for he was born in western North Carolina in 1925, and his ancestors numbered among the first white settlers in the area. However, Ehle’s grasp goes even deeper than that, for The Land Breakers contains many beautiful passages of nature writing, like this one, about a mountain autumn:

About them now the woods were changed into a fairyland of color. The buckeye turned yellow and dropped its eye-shaped seeds. The box elder near the spring turned into a bank of yellow leaves and pods; the maple in the valley just to the edge of the clearing got red as fire and beside it a white oak turned into the color of old wine; the sourwood was a rich red, the red oak was orange, and the possums climbed higher every night into the persimmon trees.

But nature can threaten life as well as inspire awe. The Wrights, as with the few other settlers who plunk down on neighboring acreage, struggle with wolves, bears, panthers, poisonous snakes, and mysterious illnesses, one of which kills Imy. Her death at first plunges Mooney into a deep depression, during which he can barely carry on his work, once his great solace. How he manages, and whom he takes up with afterward, changes lives throughout the settlement. As Mooney comes to grips with his loss, he grows as a man.

Along the way, Ehle has much to say about men and women, where true self-image lies, and the pull of what may seem exciting but is actually disastrous. Most of all, I think, The Land Breakers is about strength and weakness. Mooney is tall, physically imposing, and has an insatiable appetite for work, all of which earns respect, if not admiration. But Mooney’s greatest gift, which doesn’t always come easily for him, is the knowledge that emotional flexibility can be a strength in itself. This contrasts with Tinkler Harrison, a wealthy landowner who sees in every difference of opinion a contest he must win, never gives anything for free, and then wonders why his children desert him. When Harrison suffers loss, you sense that he’ll only become more bitter and even less reachable; when Mooney suffers loss, there’s more chance that he’ll rebound.

I also enjoyed The Land Breakers as a study in frontier life. The mind-boggling amount of labor involved in building a weather-worthy house, plowing and sowing, keeping animals, cooking, sewing, raising children–you name it–it’s amazing that anyone managed. Some didn’t, of course, but enough did, and as Ehle tells it, their ingenuity takes the breath away. If you want to know how people of that time cleared and plowed land, put together furniture, made sweet syrup from sorghum, or myriad other acts of craftsmanship, this novel will tell you.

The Land Breakers is the first of Ehle’s seven Mountain Novels. I highly recommend it.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.