“The Land Breakers,” by John Ehle

John Ehle Credit: D. H. Ramsey Library, Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Asheville

John Ehle
Credit: D. H. Ramsey Library, Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Asheville

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

John Ehle’s The Land Breakers transports readers to the mountains of North Carolina in 1779, when settlers first breach the virgin forests and wrestle a primitive life from the land. More completely and accurately than any other author, Ehle conveys the struggle involved in settling this rugged territory by immersing us in the day-to-day lives of early pioneers.

First published fifty years ago, this classic novel was deservedly reprinted in November 2014 by New York Review Books.

Ehle’s straightforward yet lyrical prose anticipates Cormac McCarthy’s novels; both render man’s battle against the merciless elements of nature—and sometimes against merciless men.

The book tells the story of Mooney Wright and his wife, Imy, former indentured servants who are the first to homestead a stretch of uninhabited mountain that is both beautiful and terrifying. No roads lead the way to the farm they carve out of the wilderness. No cabin awaits them. No electricity. No plumbing. They start from scratch, forging a new life for themselves. They confront blizzards and bitter cold, snakes and bears and wolves, near starvation, and unbroken terrain. They make their own bread, soap, and cloth; defend their paltry flock of chickens and sheep from wolves and foxes; and rid fields of rocks to plant crops. Though Imy is a strong woman, the labor and harsh climate soon kill her.

Inevitably a few others join Mooney. Tinker Harrison, a wealthy but hard man, who along with his child bride, wants to build a community his way. Harrison’s feckless son-in-law Ernest Plover would rather pluck tunes than supply his daughters with proper shelter, shoes, and clothing. German immigrant Nicholas Benz and his family and the newlywed Larkins arrive. Part of the novel’s suspense is reading on to find out who will survive, and who will not.

Reluctantly Harrison’s daughter Lorry journeys into the wilds with her father. She is married with two sons, but her husband went off on a trip and she hasn’t heard from him since.

A man alone now, Mooney must find a new wife. Universal insight into the nature of relationships shimmers in Mooney’s reckoning:

A man couldn’t have it all, anyway, he thought. A man could choose a woman who was like a sister to him, which Imy was, or a woman who was like a mistress to him, which Mina might become when she got older, or a woman like Lorry, who would mother the children and comfort him and make a home.

Work done by these settlers makes us appreciate the conveniences of modern life. Men, women, and children toil from sunup to sundown—and even later once they have made enough candles to light the cabin. Mooney makes shoes and chairs for his family. They slaughter and butcher animals and preserve their own meat. They save seeds. Lorry finds salad greens and makes medicines from herbs she gathers in the woods. To do laundry, she boils water in a huge pot and beats clothes with a battle block, then lays them on bushes to dry. She makes her own dyes and weaves her own cloth.

Those arduous tasks are frequently broken by hair-raising encounters with swarms of snakes slithering into cabins or a beast of a bear breaking down the cabin door or a wild chase after animals preying on livestock.

A sprinkling of tender scenes breaks the account of their relentless efforts to survive. In one, Mooney speaks over his dead wife’s grave when he knows his stepson is listening. Mooney says all the soft things he can’t tell the boy to his face. In another, Lorry lies in bed at night, listening to the fire burn, thinking of all the ways they had “come to be a family . . . safe unto itself . . . in a house that smelled of cooking and herbs and wool and wine and vinegar, each one in its special season, as the family made for itself comfort and protection.” Ehle is a master at showing the unique bonds that grow among people who band together and work to survive.

Ehle’s skill at rendering dialect also lends authenticity to the novel. Imy’s coffin is “a bury box.” Characters use colorful language, like “You was a cradling your head and sighing like a heartsick sheep,” or “Law, I never thought no such a thing,” or “They was none too welcome-sounding.”

Even more important than Mooney and Tinker, the land itself is a major character in the novel. With all the hardships the settlers endured, it is hard to imagine why they pushed on. It would have been much easier to give up and return to established towns. Mooney best explains the pioneers’ dilemma:

There’s no prettier sight, he thought, and no prettier place than this one. It traps a man into staying, into building here; then it shows him that he doesn’t even possess his own cabin and fields. The valley is its own, he knew now. The valley and the beasts and the mountain and the snows and the water and the cliffs owned themselves yet. If he left here, in a few years there would be little sign that he had even come.

Mooney notes that a “person becomes part of what he does” and “if he works the land, he comes to be the land, and owner of and slave to it.”

The novel explores both the beauty and the terror of starting over in a new land. A country, the author acknowledges, is made “more by the farmers than by anybody else.” But killing? It’s all part of a country’s beginning: “There’s nothing proper about starting a country. Anything having to do with a birthing is bloody. A birthing pains. Even getting a homestead started pains, for nature doesn’t allow births without suffering.”

A careful reading of this novel is worth anyone’s time, fostering a deeper appreciation of comforts taken for granted while providing the pleasure of Ehle’s fine storytelling.

Among Ehle’s seventeen books, six novels continue the saga of the settling of Appalachia begun in The Land Breakers. But the nonfiction Trail of Tears, which recounts the removal of the Cherokee Nation from North Carolina to Oklahoma, is, perhaps, his best known work.

Ehle was elected to the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame. He has also received the Thomas Wolfe Prize, the Lillian Smith Book Award, the John Tyler Caldwell Award for the Humanities, and the Mayflower Award.

He and his family have residences in Penland, North Carolina; Winston-Salem, North Carolina; New York City; and London.

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