At the center of this novel is a remarkable group of characters: the “Old Men” of the title, who have lived all of their long lives in rural southern Louisiana, surviving by adapting to the demands of the dominant white society. The inner action of the novel follows the growth of these old men from frightened creatures into men who are prepared to stand together against the law and against the Boutan family and their allies. Readers come to know these men as individuals. Each has a story; each story is different. However, the repeated pattern of disappointment and frustration in the face of injustice and oppression clearly emerges.
This pattern lends further stature to Mathu, the great exception. He is thus defined in part in terms of the contrast he represents to the other old men and in part by their willingness to put themselves at risk on his behalf. Sheriff Mapes’s evaluation of Mathu as a better man than most he has known, black or white—praise a man such as Mapes would not give lightly to a black man—reinforces readers’ sense of Mathu’s moral power.
Another side of Mathu is revealed through his relationship with Candy. Upon the death of Candy’s parents, Mathu assumed along with Candy’s Aunt Merle the responsibility of rearing her. The white woman would teach her how to be a lady; the black man would help her to understand the people on the plantation.
This is the background that motivates Candy’s...
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