The House on the Mound by August Derleth (1958)
August Derleth (1909-1971) was a literary polymath perhaps best known today for his association with H. P. Lovecraft and the co-founding Arkham House, the publishing company that promoted Lovecraft's work after that author died. For many mystery fans, Derleth is known for the creation of Solar Pons, a Sherlock Holmes pastiche who solved his way through some five dozen cases. (The Pons stories were continued after Derleth's death by Basil Copper and by David Marcum.) During his lifetime Derleth was also noted as a gifted regional writer whose Wisconsin Saga (and its subset, the Sac Prairie Saga) explored the world through its microcosm of Derleth's home state. Novels (historical, literary, regional, mysteries, and juveniles), short stories, poetry, journalism, and nonfiction were blended in a vast literary output that spotlighted Wisconsin and its people. Derleth's promotion of both Wisconsin and of Wisconsin writers was tireless.
The House on the Mound was the second novel about Hercules Dousman (1800-1868), a fur trader turned businessman and real estate speculator. Dousman became the richest person in Wisconsin and was instrumental in the development of first the Territory, then the state. Dousman's influence in the area is difficult to overstate; he even gave his neighboring territory the name Minnesota.
Dousman, as imagined by Derleth, was a scrupulous man whose business interests helped expand the country's westward growth through his connections with the steamship and railroad expansions, as well as his many real estate dealings. Dousman was respected by settlers, business leaders, politicans, and Indians alike.
The House on the Mound is a novel about the inexorable movement of change -- both within a society and within individuals. It opens a few years after Dousman has built a magnificent two-story house in Prairie du Chien for his second wife Jane and their infant son. Jane was the widow of Rousman's partner, Joseph Rolette, a man of weak and self-destructive character. Dousman had done what he could for Rolette, but the man died heavily in debt and much of his property reverted to Dousman. Two years after Rolette's death, Hercules Dousman married Jane Rolette.
Jane had three children by Rolette -- a married daughter only briefly mentioned in this novel, a somewhat lazy son who sponged money from Dousman and who soon leaves the novel, perhaps to start a political career, and a daughter who died tragically young. Dede, the infant son of Jane and Dousman, is subconsciously a replacement for Jane's lost daughter. Hercules Dousman was a long-time widower with one daughter who moved in with her aunt after Dousman married Jane when the girl was thirteen. Five years later she returned to Prairie Du Chien to marry and bear a passle of children and does not play a major role in the novel.
Some time after Dousman's first wife had died and while Jane was still married to Rolette, Dousman had a brief affair that ended when the woman suddenly left town. Unknown to Dousman, the woman was pregnant with his son. The child, named George, was taken in by Joseph Rolette's sister and his birth remained a secret. Less than a year after his birth, George's mother died. (Note: Derleth had to invent a character for George's mother; the mother in real-life was killed off for plot reasons in the earlier novel Bright Journey. The lesson here? Plan ahead.)
George's foster mother had nothing but hatred and animosity for Dousman. A self-serving woman, she did nothing to help her brother during his last years but still she loved him and could not see his faults. In her mind, Hercules Dousman was the villain who drove her brother to death and stole both his business and his wife. Now she had Dousman's son and was raising him to hate his father.
The boy was about six years old when Dousman became aware of his existence and, even then, he was loath to believe the boy could be his. But the boy was the spitting image of Dousman at that age and slowly he came to realize the truth. But what to do about it? Dousman wanted to bring the boy to his home, raise him, and secure his future. The boy, for his part, spit on Dousman the first time he met him.
Dousman's attempt to claim his son is the thread that runs through the novel, but the book's strength is the growth of America through the lens of Wisconsin. Tales of voyageurs, Indians, and immigrants weave their way into the story, as do the politics and social standards of the time. We met -- sometimes briefly, sometimes obliquely -- other historical characters from other novels in the Wisconsin Saga, as well as others, such as Ulysses Grant and Zachery Tyler, and glimpses at William Henry Harrison, James K. Polk, and Chief Black Hawk. One subplot involves Dousman's secretive clerk, who turns out to be the son of a man murdered by agents of Astor's fur company and who himself is marked by assassins.
Dousman's world is a patriarchal one and his views may be off-putting for today's reader. Perhaps this is offset by some of the political commentary, which still rings true today.
In the end, this is a well-written novel which brings to life the sights, sounds, and smells of Derleth's beloved Wisconsin as it emerges from a frontier to a well-settled country. Derleth's appreciation for nature is well displayed here, as is his knowledge of the human heart and its aspirations.
This may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I enjoyed the book greatly.