Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Review: The Land Breakers

Here follows my contribution to Historical Tapestry blog's Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2011, for the leafless and chilly month of February, in hopes of brightening it just that wee bit for fellow historical fiction lovers.

Review: The Land Breakers, by John Ehle

John Ehle's The Land Breakers, first published in 1964, contains some of the best portrayal of 18th century mountain settlement I've ever read. The book reads like living history, and I can only wonder how I've missed this author all these years.

The year is 1779. Mooney Wright, a hard-working, deep-thinking young man, and his wife, Imy, both newly released from their indentured servitude, arrive in Morganton, North Carolina, in search of a parcel of land to begin building their new lives. Though reluctant at first, Mooney ends up leading his wife into the back country, to a high valley surrounded by higher mountains, an untamed land without doctors, schools, churches, or roads (even neighbors at first), abounding in dangers from the two-footed as well as the four-footed, with settlements few and far between. Together Imy and Mooney clear a spot of land and build a cabin.

Winter exacts a heavy price on the couple before others arrive to settle in the mountain valley. Ehle introduces us to Tinkler Harrison, a determined man with big plans for a settlement and the kind of people he believes should be allowed to live there. Not high on the list of prospective neighbors is his son-in-law, the lazy, bedraggled Ernest Plover, with his long-suffering wife and passel of pale-haired girl children, the most memorable of which is Pearlamina (Mina), who develops romantic intentions toward Mooney Wright.

Of all the unforgettable characters in this novel, Tinkler Harrison's married-but-abandoned daughter, Lorry, was for me the most memorable, along with Mooney Wright, with whom her story is closely intertwined.

Just as much a character as the men and women who come to populate this back country settlement is the Appalachian mountain setting. Ehle's prose is lyrical in places, in his description of the beauty of the land filtered through the eyes and sensibilities of Mooney Wright, Tinkler Harrison, his daughter Lorry, and Mina Plover.

I could recommend this book simply for Ehle's vivid portrayal of the purely practical struggle of pioneering life, both its hardships and its frolics, its triumphs and tragedies--including battles against the elements, too little food, inadequate clothing, wild animals, illness, births and deaths that cause some characters to lose their way or give up hope, while others rise beyond what they thought themselves capable to clear their land and plant their crops and carve out a life in the rugged, brooding mountains. But it's also a riveting story, with scenes that will remain alive for me for a long time, scenes including poisonous snakes, livestock droves, a girl lost in mountain fog, but topping the list is an epic hunt to bring down a marauding bear that is more harrowing than anything I've read in a long while.

The Land Breakers, by John Ehle: Recommended!


  1. Oh Lori, wonderful review! I'm off to order on Amazon. I've not read this one though the title certainly got my attention when you first mentioned it in your sidebar. Thanks for another great read! You have a gift for reviewing books, too!

  2. Laura, reviewing books is hard! You wouldn't guess (or maybe you would!) how many drafts of these things I have to do, to do a book justice. I think this book is just your cup of tea, too. Hope you enjoy!

  3. Anonymous12:15 PM


    Thanks so much for a great review of Mr. Ehle's book. I have been fortunate to work with John these past five years in bringing some of his books back to print, including The Land Breakers, which is the first book in a seven-book series that follows one family as the first European settlers in the Appalachian Mountains of Western NC in 1779 through the Great Depression of the 1940s. More information on the seven-book series can be found at http://www.Press53.com/bioJohnEhle.html.

    John and I meet for lunch two or three times a month, so I'll be sure to print a copy of your review for him. I know he will appreciate it.

    Kevin Watson
    Press 53

  4. Kevin,

    Please give John my thanks for this book, and I'm thrilled to know you'll share my review with him.

    I'd already taken note of The Journey of August King for its subject matter, before I realized it was part of The Land Breaker series. I do believe a movie was made of that book, wasn't it? I look forward to reading more of John's writing.

  5. Anonymous6:18 AM


    Yes, The Journey of August King was made into a movie, as was The Winter People. The Land Breakers has been optioned several times, but making it into a movie has its challenges. Fingers crossed.

  6. Kevin, here's hoping it is green lighted, because I'd surely love to see it. From the little I know of the process I'm amazed any movie gets made. There seem to be far more hurdles to cross than getting a book published, and that's saying something.

  7. Does anyone know the exact location for this story? I've been going crazy searching on google maps. I have loved this book for decades. It is a masterpiece.

    1. It's been too long now since I've read it to remember if I ever figured out the exact location. Sorry!