Alice Walker often writes works in which a black protagonist, usually a woman, is caught between black and white cultures and inevitably becomes the victim of both. At her best, Walker neither indulges in polemics nor seeks to blame; indeed, here, as third-person narrator, she distances herself from her characters and allows the story to tell itself. The effect of this technique is akin to high tragedy. The reader of “Strong Horse Tea,” for example, knows that the white doctor will not come, that either Sarah will refuse to help once Rannie has rejected “witch’s remedies” or that Sarah’s help will probably come too late. What comes as a surprise is the grotesque indignity to which Rannie submits in order to do what she desperately hopes will help her child. Here, most of all, Rannie’s guileless innocence comes into its sharpest focus.
The winter storm, which continues in varying degrees of fury, serves as an important symbol. Rannie cannot escape; it pours through the walls of her shack, and it drenches her on her two errands to help Snooks. All the while, tears pour down Rannie’s face, left unwashed for five days because of her concern for her son, and leave “whitish snail tracks.” This is a late winter rain, and the death that that season brings is matched in the death of Snooks, whose breathing stops with the thunder.
Those who have read Walker’s celebrated novel The Color Purple (1982) will recognize similarities between its narrator, Celie, and Rannie, the protagonist of “Strong Horse Tea.” The common humanity and simple faith of these country women are easy to recognize, and Walker’s skill in portraying these qualities gives her work a lyricism that is far above the racial polemic that might have come from a less gifted author.