The following discussion questions for “The Trees” were created by our member Jenny. We freely share our original discussion questions, but please consider including a credit and link to our website.
Discussion information about the publication history of The Trees
The Trees was first published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1940. It was the first installment in the Awakening Land trilogy, followed by The Fields and The Town. In 1966, a single-volume trilogy was published. The Ohio University Press released rewritten versions of the trilogy in 1991. These revised versions included scenes that Conrad Richter never wrote in the original novels. The plot changes expressed a more contemporary social attitude and were inspired by a 1978 miniseries based on the trilogy. It should also be noted that all these changes occurred after Richter’s death.
This needs to be communicated when your book club decides to read and discuss The Trees. Our book club was unaware of the later revised editions and discovered we all read different versions of the book!
One Amazon reviewer expressed their disdain at the alteration of Conrad Richter’s original writing:
“Being intimately familiar with the original publication of this trilogy, I can say with utmost disdain that whoever was responsible for taking the liberties of rewriting what was very nearly perfection must have a great fondness for soap operas and should stick with romance novels instead. Not only are there additional passages inserted that were never written by Conrad Richter, there are also altered meanings of existing passages that totally change the flavor and the original intent. There are so many instances in all three volumes that I don't even know where to begin with examples. This is by far the most appalling reprint of an award-winning piece of historical fiction I have ever witnessed. You would do better to find a used copy from the original publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.”
- First talk about the different versions of this book. A lot was changed in the revised versions. People talked about it in their reviews saying how the book was bastardized, stripped of its beauty, things added that didn't make sense, etc. Who read the original version? Why do you think it was changed so much in its revision? Let's talk about the differences.
- Richter did extensive research both for historical details and to convey the mode of speech of the early 19th-century pioneers of the Ohio Valley. He used rare collections of old manuscripts, letters, and records that documented the speech of early 18th- and 19th-century residents. For me this book was at once incomprehensible and beautiful. Do you think that was the authors intention? Discuss the pros and cons of his use of this “foreign” language.
- The following is an example of the incomprehensible beauty of this book: “She reckoned it must be true she took after her mother’s side of the house, for a woman’s comfort in another woman still lingered in her bones.” What do you think this means? What does it mean to Sayward?
- Sayward often talked about “a man’s world” and how men could do things and get away with them, but a woman couldn’t. She was strong and independent and didn’t seem to need a man. Do you think the author intentionally made Sayward out to be somewhat of a feminist? Did these references surprise you considering the time?
- Worth often went into the wilderness to get meat but always returned to his family. Were you surprised that when Sulie disappeared he never returned, especially having other young ones? Did you think he would someday return?
- Often Sayward would say “if he doesn’t run off” about the men in their lives. Why do you think the men had “itchy feet” and would freely run off on their own, leaving their families in such a secluded, dark and sometimes scary place?
- “It was good enough, she felt, just to know they had humans closer around them…They weren’t set out any more in these woods only God Almighty knew how far…You might say they were living in a settlement now. She wished Jary could have hung on long enough to see it.” Discuss the differences between the “woodsies” like Worth and Wyitt and settlement people, like Jary and Sayward, that needed to be around other people.
- Many stories involved people going crazy in the woods, getting lost, running out of meat, and moving further into the trees. While reading this book I was thinking, “Just clear the land! Get some sunshine! Plant a garden! Eat some vegetables!” At the end of the book they were clearing land, planting seed, Portius got back into lawyering…it was the beginnings of a real human society. Why do you think it took them so long to finally clear the land?
- Early in the book you sense a distant and reserved relationship between the children and their mother, Jary—even before she got sick. Do you think that was just how relationships were at the time? Discuss this relationship and how it relates to mother/child doting relationships of today. What are some examples from the book of this disparity.
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