(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In Shirley Ann Grau’s early works, notably in the collection entitled The Black Prince and Other Stories (1955) and the novel The Hard Blue Sky (1958), she wrote about the primitive people, black and white, of south Louisiana’s bayou country and Gulf Coast. In Roadwalkers, she again demonstrates her understanding of what it means to battle for survival when one cannot be sure even of food and shelter; however, as in later novels such as her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Keepers of the House (1964), here she also pits her characters against subtler evils, showing how they struggle valiantly for the respect of others and a sense of their own dignity.

Roadwalkers is divided into five sections, each of which builds to a revelation and to the beginning of a new action. In the first part of the novel, Grau enters the mind of a little black girl who has already learned that her safety depends on being with other people. “Baby,” as she is called, likes to hear stories about an almost mythical past when there was a real family, complete with father and mother, children, and a grandfather and a grandmother, all living happily together. Before Baby was born, however, that family had begun to disintegrate. Her grandfather was killed; her father fled after murdering his girlfriend. Then, when Baby was only six months old, her mother abandoned her brood, and shortly thereafter, the grandmother died, leaving the six children on their own. The oldest girl acquires a man, but the rest of them have no choice but to become roadwalkers, wandering from place to place in the hope of finding someone to take them in.

Grau describes the lives of these children whom no one really wants in a style that is sparse, simple, laconic. The situation is in itself so poignant that little authorial comment is necessary. The facts speak for themselves. For example, when they find a temporary haven with their father’s brother, the children sense that unless they are almost invisible, they will be sent on their way. One day little Della drowns in a rain barrel. Grau’s brief explanation says volumes: The child was too fearful to cry for help.

When Grau does linger on a scene, she is likely to distance herself from the action by using a cinematic approach, creating a visual symbol that can stand alone. Thus she focuses first on the three remaining children, standing stark-still beside the road, then on what they see, a truck moving farther and farther down the road until it is lost in the distance. She does not need to point out that once again the children have been deserted, or that as the truck disappears in the distance, their aunt is disappearing from their lives.

At last, there is no one left but Baby and her older brother Joseph, who has taken upon himself the responsibility for the little girl’s well-being. As winter approaches, Joseph builds a makeshift shelter in the woods and begins to scavenge for food. At last, Baby believes that she has a home. Joseph, however, has taken to vandalizing the properties nearby, setting fires and killing animals. In the manhunt that ensues, he is driven off, and Baby is captured like a baby possum. Her life as a roadwalker is over.

Although the first section of Grau’s novel is relatively short, it introduces the themes and motifs that will dominate the rest of the work. Grau is a consummate artist; nothing she writes is casual or gratuitous. Thus one might think that her second section, “The People of Clark County,” is merely background information in the gossipy Southern tradition. Yet as Grau moves through a family history and into the early life of Charles Tucker, the plantation manager who found Baby, it becomes evident that, like the abandoned black children, his white forebears and Charles himself have had to struggle in order to survive. Charles has lost a mother and seen his world collapse; he has been rescued by an older sister, who in her own way is as strong and as resourceful as Joseph. Charles is intelligent, ambitious, and determined; he deserves his success, just as Baby will later deserve hers.

At the end of this section, however, the parallel that is most striking is that between Charles and Joseph. Although, as the manager of Aikens Grove Plantation, Charles has no choice but to catch or drive off the outlaw who is wreaking such havoc, he has considerable sympathy for Joseph. Charles, too, has known what it is to be on the outside looking in. Therefore he can understand why a cold, hungry, homeless boy, seeing the palatial home where the plantation owner, William Howell...

(The entire section is 1890 words.)