I loved this book! It’s like “The Magnificent Seven” transformed into The Geriatric Eighteen. It is both comedic and tragic, and I believe it deserves its status as a classic of recent American literature.
The story takes place on one day in the late seventies on a former plantation in Louisiana, now run by 30-year-old Candy Marshall, who is white. Candy’s parents died in a car wreck when she was very young, so she was raised by Miss Merle – the mistress of a neighboring plantation, and Mathu, an old black neighboring man – now 82 – on Candy’s plantation. Candy has come to Mathu’s, and finds him holding an empty shotgun, with the plantation’s white Cajun farmer, Beau Boutan, lying dead nearby. Candy sends out an alert for everyone to come to Mathu’s yard right away and bring spent twelve-gauge shotguns and number five shells. She believes Mathu has killed Beau Boutan, who was a cruel, racist man that no one likes. But Beau’s father “Fix” is even worse. There has never been an incident of a black man killing a white man in this parish before, and it is thought by everyone that Fix and his cohorts will come out to the plantation in short order for a lynching.
When Sheriff Mapes arrives, what he discovers is that not only is Candy claiming she killed Beau, but everyone else is too. These are men in their seventies and eighties, who had never stood up to the white man before, who had spent their lifetimes enduring insults, beatings, and killings in their families. Now they were ready to take a stand. But some of their wives are there at Mathu’s too, and they participate as well. As each of the men and women who have gathered at Mathu’s testifies to the sheriff why he or she had justification to kill Beau, they reveal the history of the hurt that characterized their lives as blacks in the Deep South. Beuleh, one of the old men’s wives, is telling why she killed Beau when she is interrupted by Sheriff Mapes: “You’re talking about thirty-five, forty, fifty years ago, Beulah. … And you got no proof Fix was mixed up in that.” Beulah lashes out at him:
“‘Now, ain’t that just like white folks?’ Beulah said to us, but still looking at Mapes. ‘Black people get lynched, get drowned, get shot, guts all hanging out – and here he come up with ain’t no proof who did it. The proof was them two little children laying there in them two coffins. That’s proof enough they was dead. And let’s don’t be getting off into that thirty-five, forty, fifty years ago stuff, either. Things ain’t changed that much round here. In them demonstrations, somebody was always coming up missing. So let’s don’t be putting it all on no thirty-five, forty, fifty years ago like everything is so nicey-nicey now. No, his seeds is still around. Even if he is old now, the rest of them had their hands in some of that dirt.”
Fifteen different narrators tell this story, beginning with the voice of a child, Snookum. Gaines’ ability to assume so realistically the voices of old, young, black, white, male, and female is an incredible tour de force; each voice has its own distinctive tone, nuance, dialect, and vocabulary – and these are so distinct he makes you feel as if you can actually hear each and every one.
The eighteen men, the women, Candy, Mapes, and some others, all sit on the porch at Mathu’s and wait for “the riders,” whom they feel sure will be out to exact vengeance when night falls.
Discussion: In the book, none of the main characters speaks as a narrator. Rather, impressions of them and of their motives are provided by the other speakers. Further, each person’s story is given to Mapes as if testifying in church. It’s a wonderful narrative technique that reflects aspects of the storytelling tradition where Gaines grew up. And while the old men, who can hardly see and barely aim make an uproariously funny grouping, they also make a gloriously courageous panorama, as they get ready to die at last as men, for their principles.
Evaluation: This is one of those books that made me so excited by reading it. It’s an ineffable feeling that hits you when you know you have come upon something really good. I’d love to tell you how it turns out in the end and the amazing form of redemption that Gaines constructs. But that would be a spoiler: you’ll just have to read it yourself!
Published by Alfred A Knopf, 1983