The first-person narrator introduces us to the Hamiltons. Sam Hamilton is an Irishman, descended of Irish kings, who left Ireland (rumors allege) because of a lost love. He married a small Irish woman named Liza and moved to the Salinas Valley, but there was no good land left when he arrived. Every acre of his land is dry. Nevertheless Sam makes a good life for himself: he has worked hard, built up his ranch, studied philosophy and entertained men from all over town. He is a skilled blacksmith and has trained himself in techniques of childbirth, helping many mothers in the county deliver their children.
Several key facets of Sam Hamilton’s character are established right away: he is not rich, but he is intelligent, invested, and has already overcome the loss of a great love. Already we can see that Sam is a figure for resilience: in the face of economical, familial, and personal challenges, he has become a diversely talented, engaged, generous and well-loved man.
His wife Liza has a “finely developed sense of sin” and is not a fun-loving woman. She is tough and sensible and appears to have no weaknesses. She lives with the conviction that this life is fleeting, and that she will be able to enjoy rewards in the afterlife.
Liza is from the start defined by her religious devotion. Where Sam is discussed in terms of his ability to overcome pain, Liza seems to reject pain altogether; and her faith allows her to do so.
Some people in the Salinas Valley are not like Sam Hamilton. Sam came with nothing, determined to make a life for himself and his family—the narrator wonders if this kind of venture is now “gone from the world.” But others are different. They came to California with money, and they bought good land, and were able to plant wheat and build beautiful houses. Adam Trask is one of these men.
The Trask family is defined in contrast to the Hamilton family, and the issue that divides them, first and foremost, is wealth. Sam arrived in the valley with nothing, then bravely forged a life for himself against great odds. Adam arrived wealthy, and this wealth makes his experience fundamentally different from Sam’s