What was this book? Early European settlement of Midwest
September 21, 2020 10:12 AM   Subscribe

Another edition of What Was This Book I Read: a story of early European settlement of the midwestern United States, possibly/probably in Indiana. The few details that I remember include:

1. The white settlers were clearing forested land in order to plant crops. They cut down trees and then burned the tree trunks where they fell. Some part of the story involved going out and checking on the fires under trees to be sure that they hadn't gone out, etc.

2. The main character/narrator (who I believe is a child?) spends a good deal of time early in the novel terrified of a panther who may be stalking the narrator in their cabin. Only, the narrative is rendered partly in dialect so the panther is referred to exclusively as a "painter," causing no end of confusion for me as the reader.

3. The white settlers are so cut off from other settlements, and have only been able to establish limited agricultural production, so they have no access to grains like wheat, oats, barley, etc. So, no bread or other grain-based products in their diet. So, they refer to white meat as "white bread," and there's a scene where Grandma (who grew up back East and remembers what bread is) is dying and asks for "white bread" and they bring her a slice of turkey breast and she's like, "no, no, I want white bread" and the child/narrator is so confused.

4. I probably read this book sometime between 1982 and 1995 but my memory says that it was written much earlier, possibly around the turn of the 20th century.

5. It is not Girl of the Limberlost.

Any ideas what I read? I don't even remember if I finished the book.
posted by spamloaf to Media & Arts (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The Frontiersman?
posted by jabes at 10:41 AM on September 21

Thought it might be one of Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books, but maybe not. In The Little House in the Big Woods someone tells a (possibly allegorical) story about a panther, in Wisconsin, but nobody's calling it a painter IIRC.
posted by Rash at 11:27 AM on September 21 [1 favorite]

Could be Conrad Richter's The Awakening Land trilogy. In it, they say "painter" for "panther." The books are The Trees (1940), The Fields (1946), and The Town (1950).
posted by Meldanthral at 5:29 PM on September 21 [1 favorite]

Oh, The Awakening Land sounds like a very good possibility! The use of language and the family saga there sound like a close match. Thank you, Meldranthral, I will look into that more closely.

Definitely not The Frontiersmen or any of the Little House books.
posted by spamloaf at 7:19 AM on September 22

Update: definitely The Awakening Land! Chapter 5 of Trees is titled "Bread" and tells exactly the story I remembered about white meat being called "bread."

Excellent catch, Meldanthral (and apologies for misspelling your username above). This one has been bothering me for years and years.
posted by spamloaf at 3:44 PM on September 22

No problem on the misspell. Glad I could help you find it!
posted by Meldanthral at 6:15 PM on September 23

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