In this ambitious first novel, The Living, the narcissistic naturalist of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and An American Childhood discovers a new subject: other people. A whole world, in fact, of pioneers and their children, native tribes, and Chinese immigrants along Puget Sound in the Northwest Territory, now Washington State, during the second half of the 19th century. Heady times: manifest destiny for some, plague years for others. Dillard chronicles them with a naturalist’s dispassionate eye. Life is ”a brief, passing thing, like a hard shower,” one character says. Death, in the wilderness, is nature’s way of clearing ground for the next generation. As random death by fire, water, or epidemic strikes down farmers, loggers, and fishermen, Dillard wrings pathos from their survivors’ grief and resignation. In one moving scene, for example, a group of Nooksacks, remnants of a tribe decimated by smallpox, comfort a grief-stricken pioneer widow whose children have died.
The diction is a recreation of mid-19th century American speech, with its mugwumps (political renegades) and fantods (fidgets) — sometimes mannered, sometimes wryly amusing. The later chapters lean heavily on Willa Cather’s novels of post-frontier disappointment, but this is still a great, entertaining read. You learn how to handle a dogfish and how to fell a giant tree without an ax. Dillard musters the poetry of wilderness and the politics of boomtowns in bust times a hundred years ago. Among their waves of bigotry and greed, their banking and real estate scandals spreading ruin, we can, alas, feel right at home.