Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, March 26, 2021


 Wind Over Wisconsin by August Derleth (1938)

It's 1831 and the wind of change is blowing over that part of the Michigan Territory that will soon become Wisconsin.  Baron Pierre Charlfonte Pierneau is a successful trapper and trader who had inherited his large home and its 40,000 acres from his father, who had fled France and settled here forty years before.  The title meant nothing to Charlfonte in this new land, but some people insisted on using it when referring to him.  There are few white people in the area now, but that is slowly changing as the nation grows and continues its westward push.  Already there are fewer Indians.  One of the remaining tribes is the Sac, led by Black Hawk, who has been a friend of Charlfonte and his father before him.  A government treaty obtained by fraud had forced the Sac from their home territory and an Indian prophet has been trying to convince Black Hawk that he will retake the land.  Charlfonte knows that this is foolish and to try would be to doom the Sac at the hands of the government's military, but he cannot convince Black Hawk of this.

Charlfonte had been born in that house upon a hill overlooking the Wisconsin River.  His mother, longing for France and her way of life there, has filled the house with the latest fashions and has insisted that Charlfonte be properly educated.  This Charlfonte went to Harvard, where he met the love of his life, the beautiful Adrienne, whom he married and brought back to Wisconsin with him.  Although no longer an actual frontier, neighboring towns were far away, as were their doctors.  Charlmonte and Adrienne lost two sins at an early age, leaving them their young daughter Emilie; Charlmonte himself had also lost his brother at a young age -- all were buried, along with the old Baron in a peaceful spot overlooking the river.  The house was then a home for Charlfonte, Adrienne, Emilie,  Charlfonte's mother, his employees Clemont, Dave Kerry, and Edward Fonda, and Fonda' wife and young son.  The adults all worked hard and enjoyed each other's company, the men making occasional trips to Prairie du Chien to trade their pelts.

One one trip to Prairie du Chien Charlfonte meets and becomes friends with Hercules Dousman, an intelligent, honest, and practical trader.  Like Dousman, Charlfonte is both intelligent and honest; unlike Dousman, he is idealistic, whose visions of right and wrong are strongly etched into his being to the point that he ignores some reality.  Charlfonte, for example, rages against the immoral treatment of the Indians, part of him knowing that their cause is lost but part of him insisting that justice be done.

Also on that trip, they come across a drunkard who is beating a young woman.  Dave Kerry intervenes, knocking the bully down.  The woman is Kerith O'Neil and the man is her stepfather, who had been beating her since her mother died some years before.  Kerith was forced to stay with her stepfather since she had nowhere else to go.  Dave Kerry offers her a position at Pierneau's home and she accepts, as Charlfonte amusedly watches his friend fall immediately in love with Kerith.and she with him.  Kerith's stepfather is taken to jail to sober up by two soldiers, Colonel Zachery Tayler and his aide, Lieutenant Jefferson Davis.

(This is a theme that appears throughout the book, with the author introducing historical characters either directly or offhand.  Adrienne receives a shipment of books from her sister in Boston that includes the small, anonymously written Tamerlane and Other Poems.  Charlfonte gives his mother sheet music by a promising young composer, Frederick Chopin.  One character met an amazing young artist names James Audubon and began subscribing to his artwork prints.  And so on.  My own opinion is that Derleth overdid these references, but it really did not effect the quality of the tale.)

As noted above, the theme of the book is change.  Trapping is beginning to die off -- the demand for furs is lessening, there are less animals to be trapped, and Jacob Astor is beginning to draw down his fur trade.  Over the next few years, Charlmont will be forced to find another source of income -- his land is rich and farming wheat may be an option.  As with many of the animals, many the Indians are moving west, although there remains danger from some tribes and from some hot-headed individuals.  Michigan is soon to become a state, sloughing off its Wisconsin territories, and Dousman is suggesting the Charlfonte position himself to run for public office.  Barges and other river craft will soon make way for steamboats.  Already railroad lines are being built only a few hundred miles away.  A stage line is being proposed, making travel easier.  The government is working up to making land available for settlement.

Charlfonte is concerned about having no sons; Emilie will inherit his estate and he must begin to train the youngster.  Charlfonte is also very worried about his friend Black Hawk, who is now leading his tribe to their former territory, cleverly avoiding the army and volunteers trying to stop him.  Although Blackhawk does not welcome bloodshed, it may become unavoidable.  Joining the military in searching for Black Hawk are several tribes that are sworn enemies of the Sac (as well as sworn enemies of whites, but they don't tell the military that.)  The Crow, especially, like to attack isolated homes and blame the raids on the Sac.

One evening the Crow attack Charlfonte's, but the home is well fortified against everything but fire.  The battle goes on for a long time and Charlfonte and his crew are running out of ammunition, when they are rescued by Black Hawk and his men.  Charlfonte and Adrienne go out to welcome then when a stray shoot from a fleeing Crow wounds Adrienne in the leg.  No major blood vessels or bones were hit and the bullet is easily removed, but after a few days, Adrienne becomes weak.  Her condition worsens and before a doctor can be brought she died of blood poisoning.

Charlfonte is beside himself in grief, losing all purpose.  He blames himself for his wife's death and his is still grieving over the fate of Black Hawk, who eventually surrendered to the government and faced a life of humiliation.  Charlfonte, who had always followed a strict moral code, is forced to murder a man in cold blood (I won't go into details here) and suffers a moral crisis.  His first attempt at farming wheat fails.  A rogue group of four Indians murder a settler and remain free, roaming the territory.  Adrienne's sister arrives from Boston to help take care of Emilie, and accuses Charlfonte of being responsible for her sister's death.

The winds of change that blow over Wisconsin are providing a challenge for Charlfonte.  Will he accept them and move on to a better future?

August Derleth (1909-1971) spend most of his life in his hometown, Sauk City, Wisconsin, which served as his microcosm to the world.  A prolific writer and editor, Derleth's most serious work was his Wisconsin Saga, comprising of regional novels, short stories, articles, poems, and journals that trace the history of Wisconsin and its people.  A subset of this was the Sac Prairie Saga, again a large compilation of writings in which the town of Sac Prairie was based on Sauk City and its people.  These works made Derleth one of the most noted regional writers of his time.

Today Derleth may be best known for co-founding Arkham House, a publishing company that was started to preserve the work of H. P. Lovecraft and grew to become a major influence on fantasy fiction in the mid-Twentieth century.  Derleth is credited with reviving interest in Lovecraft, while being damned by some purists for his revisionist work on Lovecraft's unpublished writings and for structuring Lovecraft's Cthulu Mythos to meet his own needs.  Derleth is also noted for the creation of the Sherlockian pastiche Solar Pons, who appeared in numerous stories and books; the character has been continued by several writers in turn and seems unlikely to fade away.  

Publishing well over a hundred books, Derleth's best work remains his Solar Pons stories, the Steve-Sims juveniles about the Mill Creek Irregulars, his early short stories about young Steve Grendon (Derleth's literary alter ego) in Sac Prairie, and his regional novels.  Most of his books are highly recommended.

Derleth was a man of wide interests and of deep feeling for the nature of his home state.  Much of his work contains vivid and loving descriptions of the land, its animals and vegetation, and its attack on the senses of color, sound, and smell:

"In March the south wind began to blow.  Gradually the snow gave before it; ,the river ice became brittle and broke away; and\ in lowland places the gray catkins of pussywillows split their brown sheaths, the mauve alder buds lengthened and revealed the yellow beauty cradled there all the long winter, the dogwood was more red, and a mist of green came among branches of birch and aspen,  In midmonth, before the snow had gone, the first songbirds came:  meadow larks crying before dawn on the prairie lulled now by the south wind, bluebirds chuckling and chortling around the outbuildings, redwings swaying on vines and reeds in the lowlands and bringing the March days to spring fullness with the variety of chatter and song.  From the high sky came again the shrill whicker of ospreys coursing along the river, and from the underbrush at the river's edge rose the full-throated song of the vesper sparrow, last fading notes of the ruby-crowned kinglet and the imperative cries of the marsh wrens, while on the sandy bottoms ran the killdeer, crying all day shrill lonely cries, and all night flying aloft among the woodcocks, so that the still, pregnant dark sounded and responded with their love songs at mating."

Your reaction may vary, but Derleth speaks to me.

1 comment:

  1. Blogger ate my comment so I'll try again. When I lived in Madison, Wisconsin in the 1970s, I saw Derleth books like WIND OVER WISCONSIN at Library Book Sales and in used bookstores. I regret I did not buy them.