Last Updated on August 25, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1274
A year after the Christmas presents arrived, the children’s father, Bailey Senior, visited Stamps in person. Marguerite was seven years old at the time and had built up an elaborate mental picture of her father, which was abruptly shattered. The real man was handsome and well-spoken, and his clothes and car made him seem rich. He became an object of great interest to “the curious and the envious,” many of whom came to the store to see him.
After three weeks, Bailey Senior announced his departure. When Marguerite discovered that he intended to take her with him, along with her brother, she was deeply perturbed and considered drowning herself or begging Momma to let her stay. She finally resigned herself to coming to California with her father, but on the car journey, he revealed that he was actually taking the children to their mother in St. Louis.
When they arrived in St. Louis, Marguerite was struck by the heat and dirt of the city, then by the beauty of her mother, a reaction shared by her brother. Their father left a few days later to return to California, a stranger leaving his children with another stranger.
On her mother’s side, the Baxters, Marguerite’s grandfather was Black, and her grandmother was a fourth or an eighth Black, nearly white. St. Louis, where they lived, resembled a gold rush town by the time Marguerite arrived there in the 1930s, with gambling and bootlegging running rife. Even the toughest gangsters, however, were respectful toward the impressive Grandmother Baxter, who combined a formidable reputation with real political influence.
Marguerite and Bailey enrolled in Toussant L’Ouverture Grammar School. The building was large and impressive, but educational standards were low, and Marguerite found her classmates “shockingly backward.” The teachers were less friendly and more formal than those in Arkansas, who had been thoroughly integrated into the community. The two children seldom saw their mother at home but would sometimes meet her near the school, at a tavern called Louie’s. She introduced them to her friends, gave them soft drinks and boiled shrimp, and encouraged them as they learned to dance. Her brothers, uncles Tutti, Tom, and Ira, had a bad reputation and enjoyed fighting. When a man named Pat Patterson insulted their sister, they protected her, holding guns, while she “crashed the man’s head with a policeman’s billy enough to leave him just this side of death.”
It took half a year for Marguerite and Bailey to leave their grandparents’ big house on Caroline Street and move in with their mother. She lived with her boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, who was older and somewhat overweight. Marguerite thought he was lucky to be with such a beautiful woman as her mother, and he seemed to appreciate this as well.
St. Louis seemed like a foreign country to Marguerite, who took refuge in reading and told herself that she had not come to stay. The children often spent their evenings with Mr. Freeman, who would come home after their mother had gone out. He seldom spoke to them, and Marguerite felt rather sorry for him, comparing him to the pigs she had seen being fattened for the slaughter in Arkansas.
When she had nightmares, Marguerite used to sleep with her mother in the large bed she shared with Mr. Freeman. One morning, when her mother went out on an errand early in the morning, she awoke to feel an unfamiliar pressure on her left leg. It was Mr. Freeman’s penis, which she calls his “thing.” Mr. Freeman told him he was not going to hurt her and pulled her toward him, putting his hand between her legs. He took her hand and put it on his penis, then dragged her on top of his chest. His heart beat so hard that she was afraid he would die. “Finally he was quiet, and then came the nice part.” Mr. Freeman held her softly, so she wished he would never let go. At this point, he seemed more like her father than her father ever had.
Afterward, the bed was wet. Mr. Freeman poured a glass of water over it, then told Marguerite, “Get up. You peed in the bed.” He then said that if she ever told anyone what really happened, he would kill her brother. She was shocked by this threat but did not understand what it was that they had done. Mr. Freeman’s behavior seemed yet another example of the inexplicable conduct of adults. Later she “began to feel lonely for Mr. Freeman and the encasement of his big arms.” She sat on his lap, and he manipulated her into bringing him to orgasm, then did not speak to her for months. For a time, she was lonelier than ever, but once again, she took refuge in reading.
One Saturday in late spring, Mr. Freeman sent Marguerite out to fetch some milk. When she returned, he called her to him. She saw that his pants were open and his penis exposed. Marguerite started to back away, but he grabbed her arm and pulled her between his legs. He told her that what they were going to do would not hurt, and if she screamed, he would kill her.
Marguerite describes the pain of the rape as a “breaking and entering when even the senses are torn apart.” She thought she had died, but when she woke, Mr. Freeman was washing her as he reminded her not to tell anyone what had happened. Then he sent her away to the library, warning her to behave naturally.
Marguerite felt too ill to go to the library and went to bed instead. Her mother thought she was sick and attempted to nurse her. Later, she heard her mother arguing with Mr. Freeman, and in the morning, he was gone. When her brother began to change the linen on her bed, he dislodged the panties she had been wearing when Mr. Freeman raped her, which she had hidden beneath the mattress. They fell at her mother’s feet.
The rape of the eight-year-old Marguerite is a uniquely harrowing scene which darkens the tone of the book. Life in Stamps had often been hard, and there was the external threat of the Ku Klux Klan with which to contend, not to mention the virulent racism of the society which nourished it. Home, however, had always been a refuge from such danger. Momma and Uncle Willie were stern disciplinarians, but they were decent people, with the childrens’ best interests at heart.
It is only in the tougher, lonelier atmosphere of the big city that Marguerite encounters a predator within the home. Mr. Freeman initially seems like a rather tame and pathetic figure, emotionally dependent on his glamorous, confident girlfriend, Marguerite’s mother. Even the first sexual advances he makes toward Marguerite seem more confusing than threatening to her. She likes it when he holds her gently in his arms, contrasting this display of affection with the cold vanity of her real father. However, this paternal gesture is at odds not only with his sexual assaults, but also with his threats of violence against her brother, Bailey, and later against Marguerite herself. Mr. Freeman’s apparent passivity makes the rape in chapter 12 even more shocking. The author retains the perspective of a child throughout her description, never glossing Marguerite’s very limited comprehension with the changes in understanding that she must have gained as an adult. For the reader, this point of view reinforces the brutal violation of trust in Mr. Freeman’s treatment of her.
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