In Chris Offutt's "Aunt Granny Lith," we find that some of the characters are similar to others, while a few have little in common.
The story is about Beth, who is the third wife of Casey. Casey's first two wives died. Some folks say he is "hexed," but Nomey (Beth's mother) disagrees:
That boy's had a run of bad...But he ain't full to blame.
Nomey does not give any more details about Casey's "run of bad [luck]," and two months later, Beth announces that she will marry him.
Aunt Granny Lith is a very old woman who never married or had children, but as a midwife she delivered more than three hundred babies on their side of the mountain. When a hospital was built nearby, she stopped working and became a recluse, living in the wild in a cave. Both Nomey and Casey thought she was long dead.
As a youngster, playing a joke on his friend Duck Sparker during a game of hide-and-seek, Casey had placed a buckeye (with the center whittled out) on what he believed to be Duck's finger, hanging out of the hole in a log where Casey thought Duck was hiding. As a part of the joke, Casey had announced:
I take you as my wife...'til death do us part.
Duck had said nothing and so Casey has smacked the side of the tree trunk and hollered for Duck to come out and kiss him. It was not Duck that emerged, but...
...a little dried-up woman, old as the hills. Her face was awful. She said, "I'll wait on you."
Casey had run away and never told a soul what had happened. However, it seemed as if Aunt Granny Lith had taken his words seriously: for his first two wives came to a quick and untimely end.
Lil is a woman in town who is out to take advantage of the drunken Casey when he goes on a two-week drinking binge. When Beth arrives to collect her drunken husband, Lil does all she can to run her out, or at least incite a fight. The two women do come to blows: Beth knocks Lil out and helps her husband out of the house.
Aunt Granny Lith is similar to Lil. Both women want a man they have no right to, and both are willing to fight Beth to get him.
Nomey and Beth are similar in that they believe that there is a power beyond that of the physical world—that there is a supernatural world. Beth refers to the power of tokens. The tokens that Beth and her mother believe in—to which they attribute supernatural (that is to say, anything beyond the natural world) or magical properties—come in the form of "an old piece of root." Casey places no significance on the tokens, but the women's beliefs and advice seem to be more effective than the things he tries to do to remove himself from the snare in which he has placed himself with the old woman.
There appears to be reason to support the women's beliefs. There is a supernatural essence to the character of Aunt Granny Lith. First she is believed to have brought about the deaths of Casey's previous wives. And when Casey decides he is going to rid his life of the old woman, the very tools he takes out to do so are rendered useless as a nighthawk attacks him in an unnatural way. The nighthawk is associated with the old woman—the first night Beth sees her, a nighthawk lands in front of Aunt Granny Lith and she "coos" to the bird.
Both women are similar in that they are very much committed to protecting their family members: Nomey watches out for Beth and Casey, and Beth is dedicated to protecting Casey and her unborn baby.
While Beth and Nomey are similar, they have nothing in common with Aunt Granny Lith or Lil.
Even though Casey and Beth might appear to be different, in many respects they are very much alike. While they disagree on the use of tokens and the mystical traditions of Nomey, they are similar in the way they feel about each other and the things they value.
Beth and Casey both care deeply for the other. When Casey causes the truck to crash on the night of his drunken binge, Beth (even after the fist fight with Lil) walks home in the dark using the stars to guide her and returns with a mule and logging chain to haul Casey's car seat (with him tied to it) out of the truck that has crashed down the creek bank. Once she gets him to the top of the bank, she picks him up and slings him over the back of the mule to take him home.
In order to protect Beth from Aunt Granny Lith, Casey is prepared to firebomb the cave where the old woman lives and shoot her if necessary. (A nighthawk stops his plan.) When he realizes that he must act as instructed by Beth and Nomey to pacify the old woman, Casey agrees, even though he hates the notion. When Beth insists that he must spend the night with the old woman, Casey is furious. He has the following conversation with his wife:
"It's against everything."
"Not if I tell you to."
"It's the only way."
"That don't make it right."
...Casey smashed the chestnut with his fist. He pounded the shell to tiny pieces, swept them to the floor.
When Beth realizes that Casey will do as she and her mother have advised him, she comforts him:
She embraced him, rocking and moaning low in her throat. At dusk, he left the house.
When Casey returns, his unease at the situation is obvious. He enters the house and tells Beth:
Don't look at me.
For the two weeks following his encounter with Aunt Granny Lith, "he lay...chilled and quaking with fever." Nomey and Beth take care of him night and day.
Beth and Casey's relationship is strong. They are able to handle things that the other does and still love each other. Rather than shifting blame, they concentrate on their relationship and their abiding love for one another—a strong yet quiet love. Beth does not blame Casey for going to Lil's. She does not become angry when he causes the truck to crash. Casey apologizes for going to Lil's and for crashing the truck.
Casey is able to be honest with his wife: not only about his mistakes, but also about things that other men might see as frailties—like crying. When he returns from his night with the old woman, he is changed. Beth recognizes:
It had broken a part of Casey and graveled him up pretty bad.
He tells Beth that Aunt Granny Lith begged him to kill her. And in his wife's company:
He lowered his face to his hands and cried for a long time.
They value family as well. While we see this in how they care for each other, and the way that Casey is willing to do what it takes to keep his wife and unborn baby safe, Beth shows her love for family by urging Casey to sleep with the old woman to save her child. She is willing to allow him to go and never makes him feel guilty—in fact, if there is any guilt, it is in Casey's self-recriminations. It is Beth who promises Aunt Granny Lith:
You're too old to be a wife but you won't die like you were born. You got my word.
Beth also allows that that night was worth it, however she notes that it was something Casey and she did together:
She didn't think about it often but when she did, she knew that what they'd done was right. Their four girls were proof enough, grown now, and gone.
Offutt's characters are rich and diverse; but in both what is shared and what is distinctly different about them, they are skillfully used to create a deep and meaningful story.