The Years of Peace, by LeRoy MacLeod
Review by John Henry
(New York: Century, 1932)
(Warning: Tyler Peck is an advocate of the South during the Civil War. More significantly he on occasion uses highly offensive racial epitaphs. His remarks are mildly censored by other characters in the book. And it is clear that the author himself does not endorse Tyler’s racism.)
The Years of Peace tells the story of two families who farm in the Wabash River region of western Indiana. The novel begins in the final weeks of the Civil War, just before Lincoln is assassinated, and ends ten years later on the last day of 1875.
The first family, Lafayette and Mary Ferguson, had come to the Wabash valley in the 1830s. They were not pioneer settlers but arrived early enough to become the most prosperous farmers in the Sycamore Creek neighborhood. Lafayette had once been a senator in the Indiana legislature and at the start of the novel is the Justice of the Peace. He is known as “the squire,” not only because he is one of the oldest farmers of the area, but more significantly because he has acquired great land holdings, buying up the land of his less successful neighbors.
The Fergusons have plenty of good land, a prospering farm, and sharecroppers and renters on their excess land. But what they don’t have are the human laborers to carry on with the farm work. Lafayette and Mary have only two children. Alan, their son, is off fighting in the Civil War, and after the war he will drift through the West, soldiering for hire or seeking riches in the goldfields, and drinking. Lucy, their daughter, is a strong and handsome woman. She works hard on the land and in the house. But she never marries.
This brings us to the second family. Tyler Peck is the young nephew of Lafayette. He is only nineteen in 1865. He was been prevented from fighting in the war so he can care for his widowed mother and work their farm while his two older brothers are off fighting. The Pecks are a well to do and “blue blood” Kentucky clan. Tyler is hot-tempered, impulsive, given to wanderlust, and sympathetic to the South, even as his brothers fight for the North.
Evaline Weller is from a poor, lower class family. Her father is known to drink heavily. But she is pretty and twenty and Tyler is attracted to her despite his mother’s strong disapproval. Tyler, after another argument with his mother and after an evening of drinking, proposes to Evaline. And though she doesn’t love him, Evaline wants to marry up and into wealth. She accepts Tyler’s proposal.
All this is the back story of the novel. As the novel opens, Tyler and Evaline have moved north from Kentucky and are working land for “Uncle Laf” and “Aunt Mary.” The story follows the two families as they build their farming empire during the ten years after the Civil War. But most importantly the novel is centered on the marriage and family life of Tyler and Evaline, who, despite their farming successes and the fecundity of their marital bed, have a deeply unhappy marriage. Tyler longs to escape to the west, or to war, or to adventure in South America. But he stays and instead finds his excitement in a long term and clandestine sexual liaison with a neighbor’s wife. Evaline’s heart grows harder, year by year, towards her husband, but she reveals her sorrows only in her prayers and her conscience, not to her husband, not to her diary.
The Years of Peace is a subtle and complex story of a decidedly “unpeaceful” marriage. The characters are all farmers and their day-to-day lives are ruled by the cycles of nature and the rhythms of farming life. Yet their psychological, intellectual, and spiritual lives are as developed as the inner lives of the characters in a Russian novel. They read Emerson and Goethe. They have heard of Marx and follow the revolutions and wars around the world through newspapers. They have nuanced political views. They experience anguish, guilt, and loneliness, and feelings of spiritual emptiness. But they also work the land. They hunt and fish; they put up preserves and patch their children’s clothing. They plow and plant, harvest and slaughter. They struggle against cold, drought, and thunderstorm. They feel the beauty of the sky at sunrise and sunset. They face the sudden pain of childbirth and the slow struggle of death.
On the surface, The Years of Peace is about farm families in a remote and rural countryside. At its core, it subtly portrays the complexity and depth of human life: the economic and political, the social and religious, the psychological and spiritual, the joy experienced in the beauty of nature, the satisfaction in hard work well done, and the sadness of two people who are bound to a common life, but not by love.
I’ll end with a passage from the book. The scene is the childbirth of the Pecks’ second child. Those present are Aunt Mary, the doctor, Tyler, and his laboring wife Evaline:
The room lightens towards noon. Yet the new life will enter by a shadowy door like the one by which it will one day depart. For although this woman survive, she must stand a while in the doorway of death, that the child may enter.
Two hours ago she walked about. Now she is like one mortally ill or wounded. She lies under a sheet, for all the world like one of the men brought in from a battle, from one of those conflicts still raising a faint din away south, out of hearing. Should they die in their beds and she in hers, the sheets would have to be pulled up only a little to cover the faces.
Tyler sat with one hip on the edge of the bed, gripping Evaline’s hand; on the opposite sat Aunt Mary, holding the other hand. At the spasms of labor they pulled against her pull.
. . . . The face on the pillow was greasy with sweat and unutterably wan. The gray eyes stood out like two spirits separate from the face. Aunt Mary took time to wipe the full forehead, the cheeks and mouth.
. . . . Tyler wiped his sweaty hand and Evvie’s so he could hold better. The spread legs stiffened again. She grasped frantically for the hands to pull on, bit her lips till they trembled, let out her held breath in pitiful grunts.
The doctor ducked his head under the sheet. ‘Fine! . . . That’s it! That’s it!’ he encouraged, his voice muffled.
Tyler and Aunt Mary had to stand, Evvie pulled so.
Then in spite of her utmost resolve, and in spite of her prayer, she did cry out. A long-pent scream escaped from between her lips and teeth. She shuddered the whole length of her body.
Under the sheet Doctor Baker worked fast–he threw the sheet angrily out of his way. . . . And now a thin gulping cry pierces the warm blood smell, as if the new life called back an answer to that scream from the pillow.