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The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder

The Eighth Day

by Thornton Wilder

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A wonderful existentialist novel about a man convicted of a murder he did not committ, the threads of his life leading up to the event and the threads of his entire family's lives leading from the event. I had read this when a teenager and wanted to see whether it was a good as I had remembered. it was better! ( )
  M_Clark | Jul 19, 2016 |
I liked this book and its odd narrative structure: the plot was intriguing and the prose was distinctive. So, why do I dock it a star? I thought the characters were unbelievable and the things that happened to them implausible. I wished for a bit more showing and a bit less telling.

There's something very Midwestern about the book. It captures the puritanical mindset that still exists out here in a non-condescending manner, and that is a very difficult thing. Hard work is rewarded, acts of charity are done silently. Bad things happen to good people, but the good never suffer. To me the novel is unsettling, but it embodies a distinctively American philosophy that I see around me but can never know nor understand. ( )
  le.vert.galant | Jan 26, 2015 |
In the foreword to this volume, John Updike says about the book "Reviews were mixed, from Edmund Wilson's calling it 'the best thing he ever wrote' to...Stanley Kaufmann's [judgment] that 'we have – from a man who has always meant well – a book that means nothing.'" And, in a certain way, that divergence of opinion (a divergence that is evident in the many reviews of the book) is a nutshell of the reading experience. At times it was one of the finest books I ever read; at others I felt myself tempted to skim past descriptions or dissertations and even wonder why a certain section was included.

But, somewhere in between "greatest book" and "book that means nothing" is the crux of it. This is a very good book that sometimes stumbles on itself, but only because it is attempting to grasp and attempt quite a bit.

Harlan Ellison begins "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" with the line "Now begin in the middle, and later learn the beginning; the end will take care of itself." And that is as good a description of the plot line for this novel as I have seen – we start with a murder and trial, but then jump between the histories occurring before the event and the developments long afterwards.

The very beginning of the Prologue starts with John Barrington Ashley being tried for the murder of Breckenridge Lansing. They were friends, and everyone knows Ashley was not the murderer. However, that is not the outcome of the trial and Ashley is convicted. On the train ride to prison Ashely is freed; no one has any idea who freed him – not even Ashley.

That story, along with the subsequent explorations of how Lansing actually died and who freed Ashley, would take up the average, everyday novel. However, this is the least of what Wilder is trying to do. Again, this is the middle of the story.

What follows is an exploration of certain Ashely and Langston family members, as well as residents of Coaltown, Illinois. We see how people survived after the trial, we see the past that brought these two families to the Illinois coal town, and, most importantly, we see how these events shaped the people they have become and the people they will become.

While we learn who the people really are, this does not serve to drive forward a plot of "what happened?" (Part of the reason the book is dismissed as meaning nothing). Instead, it serves Wilder's bigger purpose of showing the way lives evolve and how we are all evolving into something new and different. (Is it for the better? That is a decision he leaves up to the reader.)

Some of the discussions of theories and religious concepts can (as one early reviewer noted) sound like essays embedded in a novel. And yet they serve well the purpose of showing that particular individual's development. And, by digging deeply into multiple characters, different points of view are brought forward with equal authority.

By the end, the answers to the mysteries are provided. But those have become nothing more than a necessary interference to the bigger questions that are raised throughout the novel. Those bigger questions do not have nicely-tied answers, as evidenced by Wilder's last paragraph. But, even without answers, we learn.

The book is a pleasant voyage. While the characters are not necessarily brilliantly dynamic (something we seem to expect in books that we don't expect of real people in real life) they have a reality that helps us accept them on their own terms. And, even with the essay-like discussions, the book continues to drive forward. I found myself caught up in the people and in those discussions. What more do we really want from a novel? ( )
1 vote figre | Jul 20, 2014 |
In the beginning John Ashley came from New York, hired as a maintenance engineer to repair and fortify the mines of Coaltown, Illinois. Breckenridge Lansing was the managing director of the mines. This is how their paths would cross, innocently enough. Their paths would uncross when John shoots Breckenridge in the back of the head. Simple enough. After John is convicted and is on his way to be executed for the crime he somehow escapes. For the first part of the book we follow John's trek to Chile where he resumes his mine work. The rest of the book follows the lives of the people he left behind: his wife and children, Breck's widow and children. While the story meanders through philosophy and religion, the storyline is clear. There is something definitely amiss about this murder. John claims he is innocent and yet he was the only one with a gun. ( )
  SeriousGrace | Jan 2, 2014 |
A really good book with great writing. The plot however is a little unsettling, moving backwards and forwards through time, never really going where you expect it too. ( )
  charlie68 | Feb 10, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 11 (next | show all)
In the end, like all good novels, this one is about how every story is part of a grand tradition of stories in the world, from the Bible to histories to journalism, as if, on the eighth day, God created a story about the first seven.
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In the early summer of 1902 John Barrington Ashley of Coaltown, a small mining center in southern Illinois, was tried for the murder of Breckenridge Lansing, also of Coaltown.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0060088915, Paperback)

This new edition of Thornton Wilder's renowned 1967 National Book Award–winning novel features a new foreword by John Updike and an afterword by Tappan Wilder, who draws on such unique sources as Wilder's unpublished letters, handwritten annotations in the margins of the book, and other illuminating documentary material.

In 1962 and 1963, Thornton Wilder spent twenty months in hibernation, away from family and friends, in the Rio Grande border town of Douglas, Arizona. While there, he launched The Eighth Day, a tale set in a mining town in southern Illinois about two families blasted apart by the apparent murder of one father by the other. The miraculous escape of the accused killer, John Ashley, on the eve of his execution and his flight to freedom triggers a powerful story tracing the fate of his and the victim's wife and children. At once a murder mystery and a philosophical story, The Eighth Day is a "suspenseful and deeply moving" (New York Times) work of classic stature that has been hailed as a great American epic.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:50 -0400)

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