Ellen Chesser, the protagonist of The Time of Man, is an itinerant sharecropper’s daughter growing up amid grinding poverty and endless toil. Smart, pretty, vibrant, and compassionate, she clearly deserves better than her lot in life. But she is no conventional “plucky” heroine or symbolic tool for social commentary. Instead, Elizabeth Madox Roberts tells her story in order to explore something much more elemental. While Ellen may occasionally long wistfully for “things to put in drawers, and drawers to put things in,” she never wastes time in self-pity. Instead, she develops an intimate knowledge of the land around her, reveling in its sights, sounds, smells, and textures; enjoys the companionship of friends and experiences the heights and depths of love, jealousy, and betrayal; and takes pride in her own strength and in work well done. Vividly drawn and fully realized, she is both a unique and memorable character and a timeless illustration of human dignity and worth. Though its narrative is a story of privation and hopes thwarted, The Time of Man is in the end a celebration of the fact that hope and joy persist nonetheless—a celebration of the gift of life itself.
The Time of Man was the first novel for Roberts, a Perryville native who spent much of her life in Springfield. Hailed as a masterpiece at the time of its publication in 1926, it became a victim of the vagaries of literary fashion. “Rediscovered” every few decades since, it remains a compelling, beautifully written story that deserves a place on any shelf of Kentucky, Southern, or American classics.