The Earth Abideth by George Dell

What lover of fiction hasn’t tried his or her hand at a novel? It often ends up in a desk drawer, a plastic storage bin from WalMart, or the trash.

George Dell’s The Earth Abideth gathered its share of dust. The 1938 manuscript was rescued from oblivion in the 1980s and submitted to Ohio University Press by the then 85-year-old author’s daughter-in-law. The phenomenal success of Helen Hoover Santmyer’s … And Ladies of the Club made Bertie Dell of Galena, Ohio, think the time might be ripe for The Earth Abideth.

Though not quite the new Main Street suggested by William W. Allen in the foreword, The Earth Abideth is delightful, if plain, fare in its own right. This well-researched story of the struggles of a 19th-century farm family is deeply touching and conveys the harsh realities of the period.

Dell traces the fortunes of Thomas and Kate Linthorne, who elope in 1866 and settle on a farm in Fairfield County. The Linthornes stand out from their superstitious neighbors, who are as preoccupied with witchcraft, hexes, and ghosts as with agriculture. The first hundred pages seem occasionally digressive, working harder to establish a sense of period than to portray Thomas and Kate as compelling characters. Thomas plows and attends a Christmas shooting contest; Kate churns butter, makes lace doilies, and goes to church; four children are born in rapid succession. Not all of the anecdotes add up, but as the children grow older the story begins to roll.

The oldest son, Hocking, falls in love with a loose, slatternly, promiscuous girl. When Hocking elopes, Thomas cuts him off financially. Times grow so hard for Hocking that his schoolteacher sister, Charlotte, smuggles him quilts and money. Later, when their mother opposes Charlotte’s choice of a husband, Charlotte, too, elopes.

Lots of heartache over the children lies ahead, though the farm prospers. The youngest daughter converts to Catholicism, and the brightest child, Grover, turns his talents to theft.

One of the worst tragedies results from Thomas’s affair with a neighbor, Lucile. Years later, when the community learns that Thomas is the father of Lucile’s daughter, Lucile runs away and Thomas and Kate must care for the child.

The novel is saved from potboiler status by Dell’s quiet craftsmanship. Sometimes economical to the point of harshness, his style is deliberately shaped to duplicate the rhythms of Thomas’s clipped speech. The story unfolds pageant-like, sweeping the years with simple, telling details that make us care about the Linthornes and their lost way of life.

By the end of the novel, Dell has established a sure voice and a memorable character in Thomas. Life appears thus to Thomas at 71: “The world was new to him, a brawling, jumbled, discordant jangle of hatreds and fears through which men hurried breathlessly to their deaths. Only the hills were the same, the hills and the sweet smell of the loam as the share furrowed it.”

It’s almost worth the journey to arrive at such a passage. Dell’s work will appeal to history buffs and readers with a taste for leisurely, old-fashioned novels.