Raintree County by Ross Lockridge, Jr. was an excellent book for my reading challenge. Take a look at some of the passages below, and you’ll see a small portion of how Lockridge describes Raintree County in west central Indiana.
This first one is a description of a book within a book–an illustrated atlas of Raintree County:
An unknown artist had touched the earth of Raintree County with a sensitive pencil. In the sketches of farm homes, the principal building was seen as from a slight elevation so as to include a generous setting of outbuildings and the land around. Walks, lanes, roads, forests, gardens, pastures, cornfields appeared in accurate perspective. People played croquet on lawns; children skipped ropes, rolled hoops, pulled wagons; families passed in surreys, spring wagons, buggies; mare and colt scampered in the pasture; the great bull passively grazed behind the barn; the farmer engaged in his characteristic occupations–feeding, mowing, raking, plowing.
There were a few little tidbits about the glacial deposits, including a large, round boulder that lies half-submerged in one of the family fields.
Granite boulders were strewn on the earth here, negligent droppings of the great ice sheet whose southernmost rim had lain on Raintree County aeons before, leaving its load of alien rocks and glacial dirt.
And what would Indiana be without corn?
The Indians had left in Raintree County one other memorial of their vanished culture, its proudest achievement. This was the plant called maize, or, as it was known to America, corn. It was the County’s chief crop. Even T.D., who never seriously turned his hand to farming, put in a field of corn each year.
In May the first tender tips were through the black loam. In June the little plants were a hand high. Kneehigh by the Fourth of July in a good year, the stalks were thick as a child’s arm, and the few blades were inch-broad. During the hot July the corn grew with fantastic speed, sometimes four inches in a single day. By August, the stalks were higher than a man, not rarely shooting ten feet up. Leaves like voluptuous swords stirred in the moist air, drinking light. The bared roots grappled manyfingered at the crusted soil, tassels formed at the tall tips, the stalks made ears. Warm rains of late July and August fattened the kernels. In early fall the ears broke at the stalk, hung heavy for harvest. Then came the cutting of the corn and the piling in shocks. The huskers ripped the sheath and the silk from the hard ears. And the bared fruit was piled yellow in cribs. This was the great festival of the corn in Raintree County, perhaps the County’s richest image, bequeathed it by a vanished race.
Lockridge mentions the Native Americans and their influence in Indiana other times, despite the fact that by the time of his story they have all been driven out. His characters find enough arrowheads in one area to decide that the spot must have been the site of a battle at one point: “Here on both banks of the stream, he used to find arrowheads and stone heads of tomahawks.” But he also mentions the mound builders, and the three mounds near a bend of the river come up several times in the story.
Still more mysterious were the three symmetrical mounds on the right bank of the river near this place, relics of a much older people than the Indians, who were known simply as the Mound Dwellers.
This picture, from TripAdvisor, shows the Great Mound and the trench around it, at Mounds State Park in Anderson, Indiana, which is located in west central Indiana where Raintree County takes place, so it would seem to be the inspiration for the mounds in Lockridge’s book. (The Indiana DNR site has more information about the park, including an interpretive plan with some good historical info.) There are other mound sites in the state, including Angel Mounds in the southern tip, and, as can be seen from the Wikipedia page on Mound Builders, there are mounds all over river valleys between the Mississippi River and the Appalachian Mountains, so we may encounter more mounds as we continue our reading journey.
Before we go any further, we should mention the title of the book, which of course refers to the name of the setting in Indiana, but also refers to a tree. The tree is not native to the US, but is often used as an ornamental. It’s known as the golden rain tree for the rain of yellow pollen from the flowers, but it’s also known as the golden chain tree because the shape of those flowers. It appears throughout the book, associated with many of the dream sequences and with references to Adam and Eve and the Tree of Life or the Knowledge of Good and Evil; it’s often described as dropping spores or pollen in an almost sexual way. In the book, although the county is named after it, the tree is mostly mythical–there aren’t really any golden raintrees in the county, but there is a legend that an old preacher (or maybe Johnny Appleseed) planted one–and the main character spends most of his life searching for it, occasionally finding it while lost. Since the raintree was at least partially mythical, we might be tempted to discount it as setting for the book and therefore Indiana, but Johnny’s search for tree (as well as some of the dreamlike descriptions) leads to some lovely passages.
A tree with a slender trunk and a shapely roof of foliage from which there sifted a rain of yellow pollen. And it had been as though the two beneath the tree, seizing the supple trunk, had shaken down (at first languorously and then more and more violently) forbidden fruit.
Meandering through the book as it does through the county, is the Shawmucky River, which also provides some wonderful imagery, especially when Lockridge talks about the area where the river meets with Lake Paradise and forms swampland.
He started out near his favorite haunt beneath the oak. Rowing strongly, he went up the long northward-flowing stroke of the river to where it bent sharply back upon itself. From there on, he was amazed at the great slow vistas of the Shawmucky. After rowing nearly four miles he crossed under the two bridges at Danwebster, only a mile by crowflight from the place where he had started. When he got beyond the town and was veering northwest toward the lake, it was already afternoon. The air seemed more moist and heavy with the rank scent of the widening river and its flowers. The boat grounded many times on mudbars, and Johnny had to get out and shove it loose. Water and air were dense with life. He had never seen so many birds, fish, turtles, frogs, bugs in all his life before. The country too was savage, with acres of forest and swampland on every side. The river spread out among islands so that the main current was hard to follow. Bushes, waterweeds, willows, swampoaks were so dense in places that they nearly choked off the river’s course. The water seemed to Johnny to be flowing the other way in places, as if the lake were the river’s real source. Meanwhile, he kept looking about him to see if he could see any unusual tree that might be the celebrated Raintree, but he gave up the hunt as hopeless, so thick and various was the thrust of life in the last mile.
Despite all of the rich imagery, and occasional mention of wildlife, there are no birds in Raintree County–at least none that are named–which was mildly disappointing; several times Johnny startles up a large water bird with huge wingspan which is most likely a great blue heron, but no colors or markings are given. I don’t think Lockridge even calls it a heron–just a water bird, perhaps fishing. But given the richness of the book, and the depth of detail in so many other aspects, plus all the historical and literary references, I’m inclined to overlook the lack of birds.
For example, there are a number of references to the riddle of the Sphinx, as recorded in Sophocles and solved by Oedipus:
What has four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening? *
This reference to the riddle becomes a reference to the sphinx itself through a painting of the Sphinx Recumbent, which becomes a metaphor for one of the loves of Johnny’s life, Laura Golden, through the play he writes while living in New York City and pining after the actress. I love the layers and depth of this symbolism/metaphor that runs throughout the entire book and evolves over the course of Johnny’s life.
John Wickliff Shawnessey shares his birthday (April 23) with William Shakespeare, appropriately enough, as he intends, from a young age, to become the Bard of his age. He also is named after John Wycliffe.
T.D. had called his last child after the great English Reformer who had been one of the first to attempt a translation of the Bible into English. The name, variously spelled and misspelled in the old texts, was further misspelled “Wickliff” by T.D., and Wickliff it became in the middle of Johnny’s name. John Wickliff–this name had been set upon him like a badge. Perhaps he too was fated to rewrite the great book of God in a new land and in a new tongue.
I remember studying John Wycliffe in my translation theory class. John Wycliffe (c1330-1384) began an English translation of the Bible (the “great book of God in a new land and in a new tongue”), but died before it was finished. His assistants continued the work, but the Church objected–so much so that it dug him up, burned his bones, and threw the ashes in the river! William Tyndale was burned at the stake in 1536 for his efforts toward an English translation of the Bible, though his work was the basis for the King James Version–which was up to 75-85% based on Tyndale’s work (paraphrased or rephrased) and up to one third of the text taken from Tyndale word for word, according to some sources. I suppose Johnny could be thankful not to be named after Tyndale!
Besides being set firmly in the landscape of the state of Indiana, Raintree County is filled with tidbits that set it firmly in its timeframe as well. Some of the offstage events are large and important parts of the story itself, such as the political discussions leading up to the Civil War–including brief discussions of the Wilmot Proviso, the Missouri Compromise, the founding of the Republican Party, and even the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its reception. There is also discussion of the Mexican American War (1846-48), its battles (Rio Grande, Monterey, Buena Vista, Vera Cruz), and its resulting increase in the size of the United States territory–as well as the political maneuvering that was precursor to the Civil War about whether to allow slavery in the new states (and the related question of states’ rights). And, of course, there is the War itself–Johnny takes part in Sherman’s March to the Sea, and is in Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865. But there are also smaller tidbits–about the California Gold Rush, the song Oh, Susanna! (along with many other Stephan Foster songs), the Donner party tragedy, Mormons, the National Pike–the first major improved highway in the United States, Millerites, and the building of the Washington Monument.
The phrase “Westward the star of empire,” which appears periodically throughout the novel–particularly when Johnny is thinking about the Mexican American War or the California gold rush or is daydreaming about the West in general. This phrase was used in much the same way “Manifest Destiny” is, and was often paired with images of trains (often with the headlight doubling as a star in the twilight)–like this painting by Andrew Melrose–to show the march of progress across the national landscape.
Johnny also finds inspiration in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “The Great Stone Face,” and the tale is retold as part of Lockridge’s narrative.
This is one of those epic books that one could read and re-read every year or two and find new meaning in each time; it’s sprawling and long, but languorous and rich. I’m so glad I discovered this one as part of my reading travels across the USA!
* The answer is Man: What has four legs in the morning – a baby crawling; two legs at noon – a grown man walking; and three legs in the evening – an old man using a cane.