Characters: Mrs. Ponder, Mrs. Higgins, Miss Maine, Dosier, Chaney
The story is set in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Dosier, a widow, works in the baths and has an invalid sister--Sist' Chaney. Dosier has a black silk gown and Chaney covets it. Mrs. Ponder says, ". . .she doesn't go out of the house once a year. If you please, ladies, she's plumb crazy for a black silk gown. Ever since Dosier got hers, she's been craving one" (Thanet, p. 142). Despite Mrs. Higgins objections that Dosier should not entertain Chaney's desire for the gown as they are poor and need the money for other things, the other women don't seem to feel the same.
Dosier is not only highly praised among the three women in the baths; "Frequently she met acquaintances, black or white. They all greeted her with a degree of respect" (Thanet, p. 143). When Dosier arrives home, Chaney is crying and the doctors deliver the news that she can no longer leave the bed and is dying. Dosier realizes she can't go back to work and leave her sister unattended.
Mrs. Ponder goes to visit, and she tells Higgins and Maine all about it. Mrs. Higgins thinks Chaney should be "glad to go" (Thanet, p. 151). Miss Maine suggests that Chaney should want to be with her dead husband, to which Mrs. Ponder reponds "I don't guess he counts much. He was a trifling no-'count n____, who wanted to wear his Sunday clothes every day, and sit in the store-doors and ogle the yellow girls. I reckon he wasn't any too kind to her, either, ayfter she got too sick to earn money for him to spend" (Thanet, p. 152).
The story is remarkable largely for what it says about race relations. On page 143, there's a description of main street:
At that hour of the day the Hot Springs main street is a picturesque scene, a kaleidoscope of shifting figures, all tints of skin, all social ranks; uncouth countrymen on cotton wagons; negroes in cars drawn by oxen or skelton mules with rope harness; pigs lifting their protesting noses out of some carts, fowls squawking in others; a dead deer flug over a horseman's saddle; modish-looking men and women walking; shining horses curveting before handsome carriages; cripples on crutches; deformed creatures hugging the sunny side of the street before the bathhouses; pale ghosts of human beings in wheeled chairs,---so the endless procession of wealth or poverty or disease or hope oscillates along the winding street between the mountains."
Even on her deathbed, Chaney says she'd rather have her desired black silk than go to heaven (pp. 148-9). After Mrs. Ponder suggests Dosier tell Chaney about the fine funeral she will provide for her sister, she does, inviting Miss Betty (Ponder) to go see Chaney.
Yes, honey, dat so; but ef you didn't have a good time, you shall have de bigges' an' de nices' burryin' of ary cullud pusson in Hot Springs." (Thanet, p. 155)
The story ends with a description of the funeral; Chaney is comforted enough by the pledge of the black silk that she dies in peace. We see Ponder and Maine discuss how peaceful and beautiful the funeral was. When Miss Maine mentions it's a shame Chaney "couldn't see her own funeral" (Thanet, p. 159) Ponder responds with "Well, I don't know; perhaps she did" (Thanety, p. 159).
Take aways: The story sets up several instances where stereotypes are chipped away at. Not only do we see how intimate the interactions are between white clients and black bath attendants in the story, but we also see strength in Chaney versus Mrs. Higgins. Mrs. Higgins says she wants to die when her hands are in an arthritic flare, which is why she says--even before Chaney is clearly on her deathbed--that she doesn't know how Chaney stands living.
It's a nice touch, then, that Dosier shares gifts Mrs. Higgins has given her with Chaney for the funeral, since Higgins gripes about how "silly" Chaney is for coveting a black silk gown when she obviously has more important things to worry about.
The love the sisters share and how Dosier would do anything for her sister is the obvious focus here. The doctors have a brief conversation about Dosier's grief--one mentioning that it seems odd to him that Dosier doesn't seem relieved to soon be on her own after taking care of her sister for so long: "'Bracing up,' muttered the youngest man. 'She feels bad. Queer, too; the woman's always been a burden to her.'" Dr. Le Verneau, irritated, responds, "'That's all you know about it, . . . Don't you suppose she's fond of her kin? That poor soul there has lived with Dosier for twenty years." (Thanet, pp. 146-7).
Ponder and Le Verneau seem to be the most sympathetic and understanding of Dosier and Chaney, seeing them as humans with the same level of emotional capability as themselves.
Side note: A lot of talk about chewing gum as a habit at the beginning of the story. Also, a bit of discussion of how Dosier's late husband shot a gangster--a good bit of local color writing about Hot Springs. Late in the story, we find Mrs. Ponder is hooked: " Gum had become a sort of intellectual motor to Mrs. Ponder, who never felt her mind really working without a simultaneous action of her jaws" (Thanet, p. 153).
About this project:
I've been saying since 2004 that I was going to write a critical biography of Octave Thanet (Alice French). This blog is the start of that work and will include notes, links to research, and other OT related tidbits.