Basic summary: This story focuses on a feud between two neighbors, Luther Morrow and Dock Haskett. They had been feuding about who was the better shot, and when Morrow's dog, Jerusalem Jones, stole a ham from Haskett, he tried to shoot the dog and wound up hitting Morrow instead. Morrow shot Haskett in the shoulder as a result and the two are feuding. The two men decide to have a duel in the woods near where Haskett's wife is buried, but their children bring them back together.
The story opens with Minnie Haskett learning how to bake brown bread from Miss Dora. She's taken over the domestic duties at the small house since her mother died, and she loves her father so much she wants to cook well for him and her younger siblings. Even though Dock and Luther are fighting, Minnie and Doshy love each other and Minnie wants to teach Doshy how to make brown bread. Dock gives his consent, as he has no quarrel with any of the Morrows other than Luther.
The two men are in the woods ready to shoot it out when they hear the two girls talking. They find a place in the brush to watch them and see them baking bread over a small fire. The two girls talk about how kind their fathers are as they work, and how much they love them, softening the men's hearts toward each other. Jerusalem Jones is playing with a small pig, and wild adult hogs come to the pig's defense. In the melee, the bread is disturbed but Morrow shoots the hogs and the day is saved--as is the "loaf of peace."
Characters: Aunt Callie (seen in other stories), Miss Dora, Miss Carroll, Hasketts (Minnie and Dock), Doshy and Luther Morrow (Doshy is named after her mother, Mindosha), and, of course, Jerusalem Jones.
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).
Basic summary: This is the story of Atherton--both the Western town and the man it was named for. Katy and Tom Ransome, young lovers who married despite family objections, are lured to Atherton for Tom to become the editor of the paper, The Citizen. Once there, they meet Atherton--the first mayor of the town, his wife (the widow Bainbridge and her daughter), and Renee, the Louisiana native who also followed the Westward expansion.
Initially, Katy is put off by Atherton, but the more she learns about him, the more she likes him. Over and over again he puts himself at risk to help others--first, it is the man who confronts him for putting him out of business. We learn later that he hired the man at a salary higher than he ever made when running the business, though, and that the business failing was a blessing. After his wife and children died of Cholera, he married the widow Bainbridge who was destitute after her own husband died. Her daughter Rose tried to stab Atherton with a penknife on their wedding day, but he was later her friend.
Atherton has gone so far as to guarantee currency, and when the bank goes bust, he is elected out of office. His wife dies in a carriage accident, and he winds up having a fit of apoplexy. Katy and Tom move, and when they return ten years later, the town has been renamed and it is only by finding the monument Atherton had built for his first wife and three lost children that they realize they've found his grave, as well.
Items of note:
I was excited to begin Otto the Knight and Other Trans Mississippi Stories in part because of the regional focus. A few of these stories carry over characters from stories published in Knitters in the Sun. Michael B. and Carol W. Dougan's 1980 collection By the Cypress Swamp: The Arkansas Stories of Octave Thanet brings many of those stories together, although the title story "Otto the Knight" is not in that collection. Given the very light emphasis on the setting here, the omission of the story isn't completely surprising. McMichael also only mentions the story itself on page 125, indicating that it was chosen as the title for the collection solely based on the fact it was the first story.
The omission is interesting, given that Lum Shinault definitely lives on the Black River in "Whitsun Harp, Regulator" and because there is the connection to getting lost in the swamp. Marty Ann searching for Boo gets lost, just as Ma' Bowlin got lost in the earlier story.
Basic Plot Summary:
Part I: Polly Ann Shinault, wife of Lum, is out fixing the Clover Bend ferry-boat when she sees Whitsun Harp in the boat with her neighbor Boas. Harp has come by because he's heard Lum and Polly are missing a mule, and Polly acknowledges that, saying that Lum is off looking for it, but they assume it has been stolen. He proceeds to tell her his story of becoming a regulator, and how it seems like a calling from God.
It's pretty clear Harp was sweet on Polly but Lum beat him to her. Harp mentions that as kids they played together and he told her everything then, which is why he felt the need to personally tell her why he had become a regulator.When he leaves, Boas tells Polly that Harp already warned Lum to shape up and to stop partying. He emphasizes the importance of Lum doing so by telling her different stories of Harp "giving a lickin'" to various people.
Lum comes home for supper and when Polly tells him Harp finds him "trifflin'" Lum indicates Harp had better mind his own business. We learn that Lum helps his wife with household chores, having helped his mother because his father was 'triflin.'" We also learn that "he had married Polly Ann out of compassion" (Thanet, p. 316) when her father died. He reasoned that "Nary un waiti' on 'er neether, 'less hit ar' Whitsun Harp. Ef he don' marry her, I reckon Ihed orter. 'Tain't no mo'n neighborly.' //Whitsun making no sign, he carried out his intention" (Thanet, p. 316).
In a conversation with Boas, Lum reveals the truth about his interactions with Savannah Lady. They are merely trying to make the man she loves jealous, and Lum thinks there's no harm in it. The trick works, and Morrow proposes to Savannah. Unfortunately, Lum, Whitsun, Polly, and Savannah all converge in the dry bottoms of the swamp and Harp mistakes Lum helping Savannah by giving her whiskey when she is ill to be some romantic tryst. He breaks of a switch and beats Lum. Polly sees it all and chides Lum for not standing up for himself, but she assures him she'll cook him a good dinner.
Lum is ashamed and cries because he thinks Polly doesn't love him, and he's sure this was the final straw.
Part II: Lum doesn't come home for dinner, despite Polly waiting. She finds a note that indicates he won't be back (Thanet, p. 328). He has taken the gun and plans to kill Whitsun Harp. "He had been beaten before his wife, his wife who valued strength and bravery beyond everything. And Whitsun, whom she praised because he was so strong and brave had beaten him" (Thanet, p. 328). He knows this is a high priority for Polly as her father, Old Man Gooden, shot a man for spitting in his face. According to Polly, "Paw hed ter shoot him" (Thanet, p. 329).
Lum assumes Polly pines after Harp, and he decides that if Harp kills him, Polly won't take up with him. On the other hand, if he kills Harp, Polly will never forgive him, either. So, his plan is to "go off on the cotton-boat afore sundown. All through this wide worl' I'll wander, my lone" (Thanet, p.329).
Lum (short for Columbus) crosses paths with Boas,who is dying. Boas tells Lum he's come out to warn Harp that some other men are coming to kill him. Boas killed another man a few years back, and ever since he's been haunted by it. He fears going to hell, and he hopes that by warning Harp, God will give him mercy. Unfortunately, he's too weak to go all the way across the swamp and he begs Lum to do it for him. Lum does, but he tells Harp that as soon as Boas dies, he will kill Harp. Harp, upon hearing the truth about Savannah, swears he'll make it up to Lum and Polly, but Lum says there's no way he can.
It takes three weeks for Boas to die and Lum acts weird, taking to the woods mostly. Polly worries about him and follows him, but she's not sure what to do and just fears he's gone mad. When Boas dies, Lum joins Harp at the grave and tells him he's still going to kill him and where to meet after the funeral. Harp asks Lum to meet him at the plantation store first, and he does. Harp makes things right by admitting to being wrong and apologizes. He and Lum shake hands, and Lum decides to go squirrel hunting.
Meanwhile, Polly notices Lum's boat is gone and she follows him to Clover Bend (using Boas' boat). She hears a single shot and runs towards it, finding Harp dead on the ground, a smile on his face. Lum is nearby, but he tells her the story of how Harp made things right and that it wasn't he who shot him. He tells Polly he'll leave her to her goodbyes, and she realizes he thinks she loves Harp. It turns out she never loved anyone but Lum, and the story ends with them embracing, Harp's dead, smiling body still on the ground.
Perhaps you will excuse my mentioning that Whitsun Harp is almost entirely a true story. Harp lived and died as I have tried to picture and Boas was haunted as I have described and (although not in Clover Bend) I know of a Lum saved as Shinault was. This is no excuse for me if I haven't made the story real; I only mention it to show that I have no such notions as you impute to me; but am as uncompromising a realist as lives. I have tried not to idealize my friends of the Cypress Swamp, one atom . . .
Mrs. Legare has a devoted servant (former slave) named Venus. Johnny (Union soldier) meets Legare and befriends Venus at the start of the story and spends lots of time with her in the gardens and the kitchen before returning North.
When he returns after the war, he finds that the property has been taken by Baldwin, who we later learn, from Mrs. LeGare:
He was an overseer on my uncle's plantation , and was sent away for cheating. He went into the Yankee army afterward as a sutler, but he had to leave because he would get provisions for the people here from the commissary and then sell the provisions. (Thanet, p. 286)
Baldwin refuses to let Venus pay the property tax, as she is not the owner (LeGare is away when the war taxes are due), and he buys the property out of spite. Venus puts a curse on him (only half of one, though, as her mother never taught her any full curses).
Despite the fact he isn't living on the property, Baldwin refuses all offers to buy the property back (from LeGare, Johnny, Venus), and eventually gets Yellow Fever. Despite his orders for LeGare to leave the property, she determines she will go nurse his family back to health.
Venus goes in her place. She, of course, contracts the disease and dies, proclaiming it is her punishment for the "half a curse." Baldwin shows up on her funeral day to evict LeGare, but his heart is softened when she tells him it was Venus who nursed his family back from the brink of death. He gives the house back (no payment).
McMichael does a great job of summarizing some of the issues here:
The story followed the romanticized tradition of post-bellum southern fiction with its mansion,its southern belle, and its Negro mammy, a loyal and noble illiterate providing wisdom and salvation for her betters. The resolution brought by the union of the Yankee officer (Johnathan) and the southern [widowed] maiden, reuniting the North and South, was an equally overworked convention. (p. 102)
Bud Quinn and his wife Sukey live in Clover Bend. Bud was almost hanged on the day Ma' Bowlin' was born, as William Ruffner thought he had murdered his boy, Zed. Zed disappeared eight years ago, and rumor was that Bud killed him and fed him to the hogs. Sukey saved him that day by reasoning with the men (hooded klansmen, it appears) that Bud didn't have a mark on him, and he would have if he'd killed Zed who was larger and stronger than he was.
The story opens with Mrs. Brand, a widow from Georgia, visiting Sukey as she finishes a new dress for Ma' Bowlin'. Sukey makes sure to instruct her daughter not to get the gown dirty, and the girl promises before setting out to the plantation store to meet her father to show him her new dress. Bud arrives home alone, and a search party begins looking for the girl.
Bud was ashamed of Ma' Bowlin's feeble-mindedness and never cared for the child; upon seeing how upset Sukey is, though, he realizes he, too, loves Ma' Bowlin.' He goes searching for her, and he and Ruffner find her--and Zed. The gown is clean and the family is reunited.
She was a baby ; a girl, when he wanted a boy; she was a toddling little thing who wouldn't learn to talk, but used queer sounds of her own for a language; he had a notion that it was this which first gave him his repugnance to the child . She was a girl whose feeble mind was a judgment ; then he slowly grew to hate her . He didn't know whether he hated her now or not ; he only knew that if Sukey wanted her so bad, she must have her. (Thanet, p. 252)
Interestingly, when she appears on Zed's boat, she's cured:
Her face looked like an angel's to him in its cloud of shining hair; her eyes sparkled, her cheeks were red, but there was something else which in the intense emo tion of the moment Bud dimly perceived — the familiar dazed look was gone. . How the blur came over that innocent soul , why it went , are alike mysteries. (Thanet, p. 264)
The Berkelys are on a steamboat and land on the shore of Lake Pepin, where they meet up with a hermit. The man was once a church going man, but he turned away from faith and toward philosophy. His wife and son died of diptheria and he adopted his daughter out to relatives.
Ethel Berkely convinces the hermit that what matters is "good works." Years later, she finds out he died of yellow fever in Mississippi where he had gone to volunteer to help those who were ill.
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.