(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Ellen Douglas tells the story of the emergence of a new South. She also tells about a local Mississippi boy who comes home to discover that new South and to discover the truth about the past. The novel opens with Alan McLaurin making his way back home to Mississippi after having spent a number of years in the Northeast. Hitchhiking, he is picked up by a carload of blacks. Marveling at the changes, he explains that he has been away from Homochitto County, Mississippi, for a number of years, but that now he is home to settle down on his family’s land in the country. Having quit his job in a sugar refinery and separated from his live-in girlfriend, Miriam West, Alan has left Boston to “live on the land” and write poetry. A conscientious objector who did not serve in the Vietnam War, Alan had left home to go to school in the North. He had left behind a South in racial and social turmoil and now has returned home to discover what is left of the land that he abandoned.

The discovery process provides a framework for the novel’s action. Told as a recollection by Alan, the writer, several years after the events in the novel have taken place, the novel moves as a first-person account from the narrator’s present back to the events in the novel and even back to the 1960’s. The novel is also a discovery process for the reader, for not until the book’s end do the pieces of the puzzle fit together.

After arriving at the family place, Alan becomes reacquainted with Sam Daniels, the black caretaker of the family land, and catches up on events in the community. As each character is introduced, there are flashbacks to past events that put the characters in perspective. In Sam’s case, she describes him as a stubborn man, living right on the edge of danger during the turbulent 1960’s. Sam has been integral to the McLaurin family for years; he has tended the family land, has had a love affair with Alan’s Aunt Leila McLaurin, and has driven the car in which Alan’s cousin, Phoebe Chipman, was killed. Douglas then goes on to describe Phoebe’s accident. Her death haunts Alan throughout the novel and ultimately leads to his own violent action. Furthermore, his present girlfriend, Miriam, bears a striking resemblance to Phoebe. The reader learns at this point in the novel that Phoebe was killed in an accident in which Sam drove with her down a gravel road not far from home. Sam vaguely recollects rocks striking the windshield, temporarily blinding him, and making him run off the road. This one incident sends out tendrils to nearly every other event in the novel. In one sense, the entire book is about Alan’s search for the...

(The entire section is 1080 words.)