American Baroque

Written by Adam Littleton
Review by Lynn Guest

In the summer of 1835, three strangers saunter into Mohawk, Indiana: an urchin, a scruffy schoolteacher and a scruffier, cheerfully inebriated preacher dressed in an old coffee sack who claims to be Johnny Appleseed, the frontier folk hero. Fascinated and suspicious, half the town cautiously allows them to stay to teach Latin and scripture and check the apple trees. Occasionally, fired by strong cider, the Planter delivers impassioned sermons or performs magic tricks. To his admirers, he seems a mad but harmless prophet, but to many, he is a fraud, a blasphemer and a con-man, a danger to decent people. This latter impression is fortified by the urchin’s habit of picking pockets. Whatever and whoever the Planter might be, he remains always happily drunk and always smiling through hunger, cold, a vicious beating and jail. The situation is complemented by the beautiful, over-sexed daughter of the local doctor who takes them in.

The Planter, a.k.a. Johnny Appleseed (maybe), is a wonderfully created character, larger than life and mysterious to the very end. An even better creation is the narrator, Morris, an ex-schoolteacher whose son has died and whose wife has left him.  Wandering aimlessly, he happened to fall in with the Planter and the urchin whom he struggles to educate. He records their adventures and many disasters in his journal. A worrier, a dreamer and a gentle intellectual, he makes a perfect foil to the confident, autodidact Planter. Mohawk, with its colourful population and rough-and-ready frontier standards, is deftly drawn and convincingly in period, and accompanied by Adam Littleton’s sensitive descriptions of weather and landscape. This is a beautifully written, intriguing novel. It is also very funny. A most enjoyable, often thought-provoking read.