I would describe Raintree County by Ross Lockridge, Jr. (1947) as a more accessible Ulysses by James Joyce. It is huge, and sprawling, and poignant, and funny. It is historical, and philosophical, pithy and gritty. It is also written in a style that reminds me a bit of Joyce’s stream of consciousness, but is less extreme and, therefore, more accessible. The chapter titles are part of the text–indeed, they are usually part of a sentence that starts at the end of one chapter and includes the next chapter’s title, which, in turn, continues into the text of that chapter. The text is frequently (and without warning or any visual indication) interrupted by mini-thought trains that try to derail the main story (and sometimes do), and whimsical metaphors such as the difference between Mr. Shawnessy and mr. shawnessy (through which image we also learn the word “majuscular,” meaning capitalized like a proper name should be!). There are no quotation marks, which was the style in those day, but is particularly confusing at times due to the stream of consciousness style.

Now, please, don’t be alarmed by the comparison to Joyce–full disclosure: I have not, to date, ever been able to make it through Ulysses, despite a number of attempts, and I probably never will. But I am enjoying Raintree County. Despite the at times drifting, dreamy, run-on quality of the text, it is very readable. (In my Indiana post where I announced this selection I noted that it is listed in a Goodreads list of “Big Fat Books Worth the Effort,” and I would wholeheartedly agree with that.)

–The Mexican War. When was that?
–Eighteen forty-six to eighteen forty-eight. I was about your age then, Will.
Are you Johnny Shawnessy? Yes, sir. Can you read, son? Yes, sir. Well, read this then.
–Did they have a Fourth of July when you were a boy, Papa?
–Sure.
–Did they have firecrackers and things?
–Big ones.
Bang! Forward, boys, all along the line! Kill the damn greasers! Westward the star of empire.

The above is an example of one of the more confusing passages I’ve come across. There’s nothing to indicate the switch back and forth between John’s conversation with his son, his memories from when he was a boy, and his imaginings of the Mexican war. However, in the next chapter or two, we see a more full version of both of these snippets, and this whole passage becomes clear. This type of dream sequence (or perhaps day-dream sequence) is intermixed with the text throughout, and is sometimes noted as such and sometimes not.

I’m about 3/4 of the way through the novel right now; I will admit it is slow going, but I also have to reiterate that I am enjoying the book. I also feel that it is a wonderful addition to my challenge. As the title indicates, the book is set in Raintree County, which is a fictionalized version of Henry County in the middle of eastern Indiana, and it includes some wonderful imagery about Indiana life from about 1850 until 1892–including a whole mythology surrounding the eponymous “raintree” and its elusive (and perhaps mythological) location in the county.

The main character is born and raised in Indiana, with a few brief forays into the outside world–notably a trip to New Orleans and one to New York, and his participation in the Civil War–and he is a Hoosier to his core, even when his education might set him a bit apart from his more salt-of-the-earth neighbors.

In several of the Indiana books I’ve read so far, I’ve had some difficulty in figuring out what distinguishes Hoosiers from the country farm folk I grew up with in upstate New York or the country farm folk I spent 15 years among in Wisconsin–and, in fact, I’ve stumbled across a collection of stories from the Rust Belt that I may have to add to my reading list–but Raintree County by Ross Lockridge, Jr. comes the closest by far to making that distinction. Raintree County really feels as if it could not take place anywhere else (and not just because the setting is the title!). I’m not sure I can quite put my finger on what that distinguishing characteristic is yet, but I don’t feel that the novel could really be transferred to New York or Wisconsin… I don’t have enough of a feel for some of the other Great Plains farming states to know if it would transfer to, say, Kansas or Nebraska. (Certainly, I think, not Dorothy’s gray Kansas…)

In some ways I feel like I could keep reading Indiana for months in search of that indefinable something… (and, at times, it feels like it will take me months to finish Raintree County!), but at other times I feel like this book has brought me as close as I am going to get to knowing what makes Indiana… Indiana. And it’s almost time to say, “Westward the star of empire!” and move (at least slightly) west to another destination on our journey. More to come on setting in time and place.

 

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