Tuesday, August 31, 2010

southern voices

Having just re-read the classic short story "A Member of the Wedding," by Carson McCullers, I'm reminded of how wonderfully the author developed her structure of character voices, the sense of place, and a theme of personal change.  Frankie Addams is a twelve year-old girl in a small, southern town in the Forties, during WWII.  She is still a bit tom-boyish, but this spring finds her in a state of heightened awareness and tension, wanting something to happen, to be able to break out of her familiar but suffocating routine.  She has been alienated from the society of her former girlfriends and has only the company of her younger first cousin, John Henry, and the doting, but 'tell-it-like-it-is' black maid, Berenice. 

In early sections of the story the drama plays out in the kitchen of the Addams house, during evenings of card playing, eating supper, and with Frankie giving voice to her anxieties and frustrations, her vague plans for breaking out of the maddening stasis of her life, only to be brought down to earth time and again by the more sage and practical Berenice, who's had four husbands and has been around the bend.  Frankie's diction is forever entertaining, as she reaches for words and expressions of her feelings that belie her age.  The sense of the slow moving rhythm of life in the small town is portrayed in their conversations, and in Frankie's restless pacing around the kitchen, and her volatile outbreaks.  Although there is an underlying bond between Frankie and Berenice, Frankie sometime uses Berenice as a foil for her anger using aggressive language, but Berenice lets her have it back in style.  Sometimes, to work out her pent-up anguish, Frankie practices knife-throwing against the kitchen wall. She alarms us.

The indignities and injustices of race relations more common in that era come out in some of Berenice's stories, and is evident from mannerisms of Berenice's friends, but Frankie doesn't seem much, if at all, tainted by that evil.  In fact she is a sometimes visitor to Berenice's ancient mother, who tells her fortune, and is friends with Berenice's foster brother.  It's amusing to hear Frankie attempt to give him her eloquently phrased version of grownup advice.

In Frankie's attempt to assume a maturity she doesn't have, she roams an unfamiliar side of town and befriends a alcohol-fogged soldier from the nearby army base, and agrees to meet him that night at his hotel to go dancing.  Again, it's very amusing to hear her try to converse with this sodden soldier like a grownup, but soon the scene escalates into a trip to his room and Frankie has to almost bite off his tongue and smash him in the head with a pitcher to escape.

Frankie plans to escape her stifling environment by getting her brother and his fiance to take her with them after their upcoming wedding, and they can then have adventures together while roaming the world.  It seems her last chance--and she's devastated when they go off on their honeymoon without her.  Her world has collapsed.

In a sort of anti-climax, or epilogue, a couple of months later Frankie has found a very compatible new girlfriend in town, and it looks like life will go on after all.  Sadly, Berenice is getting married once more, and has served a notice of quitting to Mr. Addams.  We'll miss her.

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