The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bill Trapp is a man devastated by loneliness. Every night when the sun sets he drinks himself to sleep, sometimes dreaming of Harry Simsoe’s Continental Show, the carnival with which he traveled as a laborer for many years. He and his sister, Hilda, were adopted as orphans by a Mrs. Haines; as a child, he always thought of himself as ugly. When Mrs. Haines died, Bill and Hilda had to fend for themselves with what jobs they could find, Hilda as a maid and Bill as a garage helper and later a carnival hand.

Bill’s only friend with the circus had been a drunken Italian performer who was devoted to an ancient hound dog. Bill and the Italian even ordered a set of books, one of which contains the anatomy text with which the girl Pokay later incriminates Bill. When the Italian dies, Bill retires in the town where he finds himself—Ridgeville—and buys the little patch of farmland near Beetlecreek. He has been there ten years when the story begins.

When Johnny Johnson comes to live with the Diggses, he is an innocent youth with no ill will toward anyone. At the fateful moment he discovers Johnny in the apple tree, Bill ends his self-imposed alienation from other humans by welcoming Johnny, and it appears that the black adolescent and the old white man may establish a friendship satisfying to both. Johnny’s corruption by Baby Boy and his delinquent Nightriders is swift, however, and Johnny’s torching of Bill’s home is a shocking close to...

(The entire section is 473 words.)

The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

It is through the three major male characters—Bill, Johnny, and David—that Demby conveys his concern in Beetlecreek: the pursuit of a significant life experience. These three characters and the relationships between them form three perspectives from which to view this concern.

Bill, an orphan, has always had to struggle against his sense of being alone and outside the human community. Before coming to Beetlecreek, he tried to live a meaningful life among other people, but he became frustrated and eventually retired to the seclusion of a farm in Beetlecreek. At the time of the novel, he has lived there for fifteen years. Now an old man, his encounter with Johnny at the beginning of the novel rekindles in him a desire to pursue a significant life through relationships with others. Bill’s character incorporates a broad range of qualities with which readers can identify: When inspired, he can be almost heroic, devoting energy, patience, and tolerance to others in an attempt to get them to see him for the compassionate human being that he is; on the other hand, he can be small, weak, pathetic, and ineffectual as he gropes for his identity in seclusion.

Johnny, a teenager adrift in the world, is trying to find the most significant pattern for the life ahead of him. He is perceptive enough to know that it is important to respond spontaneously and humanely to Bill; moreover, his soul instinctively revolts when he sees acts of wanton cruelty, such as those practiced by the gang members in an attempt to prove their manhood as dictated by society. Despite this revulsion, however, Johnny, like many teenagers, is highly vulnerable to peer pressure, and his desire to be accepted by the gang—to become what he calls the “new Johnny”—is so strong that he is willing to burn down Bill’s shack to gain that acceptance. Johnny is adrift, with no landmarks but his own emotions. His precarious position shows...

(The entire section is 790 words.)