American Bedrock

By  |  December 17, 2014
Turkey Creek, Pike County, Kentucky (2008) from Testify: A Visual Love Letter to Appalachia by Roger May Turkey Creek, Pike County, Kentucky (2008) from Testify: A Visual Love Letter to Appalachia by Roger May

John Ehle’s The Land Breakers is the first of his seven “Mountain Novels,” which, taken altogether, tell the story of North Carolina from the end of theRevolutionary War through the Twentieth-century struggle for racial integration. First published in 1964 and out of print for too many years, The Land Breakers is enjoying a long-overdue revival. A handsome reissue from Press 53 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, brought the book to the world in 2006, and here it is again, this time with NYRB Classics. It is an excellent novel, an Appalachian East of Eden that narrates the birthing pains of a country through the lives of a half-dozen families who converge on a patch of land high in the mountains—perilous in its proximity to heaven.

The story is this: the man they call Mooney had come from the north, from Philadelphia at first, where the dandies (it was said) wore such effeminacies as perfume and powdered wigs. Twelve years there he served a northern man under the indenture that had brought him from Ireland, and now, with his freedom and his wife, he treks to Carolina to make a settlement of his own: he wants something built, not borrowed, where he can draw life from the land—land that will begin to ask for sacrifices in return. Others join: the rich and mingy Tinkler Harrison, a man who would be king except nobody likes him enough to bend at his say-so; Harrison’s extended family, including his daughter Lorry and niece Pearlamina; a caravan of German immigrants corralling turkeys; a young couple up from Cumberland who come to a frightful end; and others, all of them drawn to the silent, oaken will of Mooney, a giant of a man who builds his settlement first for love, then for grief, and finally for the dream of a community, knowing all along the dark and wordless truths about the inadvertent penance that mountain-farming extracts from a people and their tenuous togetherness—how the mountain must be appeased before it can be tamed.

Michael Ondaatje has called The Land Breakers “a great American novel,” and while I’m not sure of the going criteria for that honor it is hard to cavil with his endorsement. Like Steinbeck or O’Connor, Ehle finds ancient truths in the American landscape, the land that Ehle evokes as a living thing—an impersonal spirit, yes, but also a character, just as much as Mooney, that mountain of a man. Like Mooney, Ehle is half in love with the land and half terrified of giving himself to it, and he treats each hard-won blessing with unsentimental, almost Biblical directness. Unlike so many writers of historical fiction, Ehle’s sporadic recourse to archaism delights with the cadence of parable and myth; elsewhere, he lets loose the reins for half-mystic moments redolent of James Agee—“the thought-empty sounds of days he had forgotten.”

But one need not spend a winter in the mountains northwest of Asheville to fall in love with the frank souls who people The Land Breakers: Ehle exudes a savage kind of love for his characters, these motley pioneers who must profane the land in order to make it theirs. Leslie Banner has written that Ehle’s“books open outward on human nature and on American life. Unlike so many who have written about mountaineers, he never conveys to his readers any sense of excursion among a strange kind." Banner means that Ehle never condescends to his characters; nor does he mythologize them, at least no more than he does the bears who guard the mount against incursions. Instead, the oscillation between severity and farce is abrupt to the point of shock:

The bear was sitting high in a hickory tree, was gazing off unconcernedly across the valley, enjoying the breezes. When he looked down and saw them, he considered who they might be disinterestedly, watched them lazily, contentedly, as if he had been watching them all along. . . . The axhead was buried in the fur and flesh. The bear slapped at Mooney. Both of them were blinded by the bear’s blood. The bear waddled close to Mooney, grasped him, hugged him close to his own bleeding fur. 

The characters themselves are attuned to this inscrutable logic of creation: “Silly things, aren’t they,” one fellow says of trees, “each one standing on one leg, silly creatures. No man, if given the mission to make a cover for the land, would ever dare to make so funny-looking a thing as a tree.”

Amid all this folksy mysticism, the novel’s richest characters are its women, especially Lorry and Mina, who begin the story as accessories to men-on-the-move but emerge somewhat as champions of their own destiny. Lorry is a portrait of muscular motherhood; Mina the gorgeous, guileless teenage cousin who escapes the clutches of drunks to romp the mountain proudly, a vision of spiritual freedom. Ehle evokes Mina’s sprightliness, her salvific charm,mostly through dialogue, but in general his sparing character descriptions match the spare trappings of material wealth that shield the homestead from the menace of the highlands—like Mooney’s musket-flint, or Lorry’s collection of herbs, the characters emerge in stark realism, all the more vivid and precious in the silence that surrounds them. In The Land Breakers, as in Woolf, the smallest domestic tasks take on spiritual weight and implication, and we can see Ehle making sporadic dips into a Woolfean stream of impressions:

She had helped him too much. A woman wasn’t made to do clearing. She had helped cut trees and pull brush and burn off. Maybe that was it, that in the brush smoke had been the pained spirit of this place, and it had got inside her and was expanding outward, smoldering stifling her.

In Ehle’s hands, the mediated narration here and elsewhere—what the French critics would call discours indirect libre, whereby the narrator assimilates a character’s voice—has a modest virtuosity, a literary motif that echoes the novel’s inborn humility, its awe before nature.

In her introduction to the new edition, Linda Spalding calls The Land Breakers “a Chaucerian pageant.” So it is, but far, far sadder, with two particularly wrenching scenes that rise out of their dispassionate prose to draw tears from the unsuspecting reader. And the novel is less Chaucer than Faulkner meeting Lear on the storm-swept mountaintop, a tale of human whelping, of wounds in the mountain and a mountain that wounds back. There is something of animal-rutting in the book’s negotiation between man and nature—a generative relationship, a fertility dance that brings pain and has more to do with necessity than with consent. “Standing in the center of a glistening womb which they had made,” the settlers look out on the mountain that will swallow some of them before it will surrender itself. Ehle’s novel is a quiet hymn to mutual sacrifice, to the loss of virgin land—the tale of Eden, and of its doom.

Correction: On December 17, this article appeared crediting NYRB Classics with the first reissue of The Land Breakers since its original publication in 1964. The book was actually first reissued in 2006 by Press 53 in North Carolina. Press 53 has reissued a number of Ehle's books, which you can findhere.

Ted Scheinman lives in California, where he is a senior editor of Pacific Standard magazine. His essays, reporting, and criticism have appeared in the New York Times, the Paris ReviewPlayboy, and Slate.