John's Reviews > The Eighth Day

The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder
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Feb 26, 10

Read from February 17 to 26, 2010

It is July 1902 in Coaltown, Ill., and John Ashley is convicted of murdering his friend and boss Breckinridge Lansing. Years later, he is exonerated, but long before that, while Ashley is on the train to Joliet where he will be executed, six men disguised as porters overcome his guards and set him free, providing him with a horse and supplies for his escape.
This is the starting point of Thornton Wilder's "The Eighth Day." What comes after is a series of what could be called interconnected novellas.
First, we follow Ashley's wife, Beata, and her three daughters as they convert their home (known as "The Elms") into a boardinghouse in the wake of the events described above. It is actually the middle daughter, Sophia, 14 when the book begins, who instigates the boardinghouse, which becomes a modest success.
Next we follow John Ashley as he flees to Chile. Everything he encounters, he improves.
Third, we follow the Ashleys' son, Roger, as he quickly moves to Chicago following his father's escape. Here, the 17-year-old Roger tries out a variety of careers, showing great promise in each but little interest. Then he falls among newspapermen who live in the fourth-rate hotel where Roger is a clerk:
"A smell of gin, lemon peel, mash, cubebs, and medication filled the air. The men seldom ate, slept, washed, or fell silent. They were ill paid and only intermittently ambitious, but they were convinced that they belonged to the greatest profession in the world. They knew everything; all men except themselves were the dupes of appearances. They were privy to corruption in public office, the farce of philanthropy, the hypocrisy of the clergy, the wolves' raids of big business -- especially of the railroads and of the stockyards. They were rich in all the knowledge they were not permitted to print."
Naturally, he becomes a newspaperman, and soon he is a great success.
We are given only glimpses of the Ashleys' future lives, but it's made clear that three of the children -- Roger, Lily (the eldest), and Constance (the youngest) -- will achieve fame or, perhaps, infamy. Only Sophia's light will fade quickly.
Fourth, we go to Hoboken, N.J., for a history of the Ashley family. This is the weakest section of the book.
Fifth, we learn all about the Lansing family.
Sixth, it's all tied together, at least partially, during the Christmas holiday of 1905 back in Coaltown. Roger and Lily have returned from Chicago, where she has embarked on a singing career, and we see things mostly through Roger's eyes.
"The Eighth Day" is not a mystery story, it's a character study. But two mysteries permeate this novel:
1. If John Ashley didn't kill Breckenridge Lansing, who did? And why? (By the end of the fifth section, I almost wanted to kill him myself.)
2. Who was behind Ashley's escape? And why?
The reader who has seen or read (or played a role in) Wilder's "Our Town" will recognize echoes from that famous play. Wilder's preoccupation with "millions" and even "billions" is seen in both places.
The stage manager in "Our Town" says: "M ... marries N ... millions of them. ... Once in a thousand times it's interesting."
In "The Eighth Day," Roger is musing during his early days in Chicago: "It gave him a restful feeling to think that God who had made so many people had made so many stars, too. There was probably some connection. They were shining down on 'The Elms' and maybe on his father, millions of them."
The word "millions" and the word "billions" are used quite a few times.
But this is my favorite sentence, containing neither of those words:
"The great persuaders are those without principles; sincerity stammers."
"The Eighth Day" is a complex, magnificent work. It's the sort of book I keep thinking about for days after I've finished reading it.
It's ample evidence that Wilder should be remembered for more than "Our Town."
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