Much like Katherine Anne Porter’s Miranda stories and Caroline Gordon’s and Eudora Welty’s writings about the coming-of-age of young women in pastoral yet treacherous settings in the South, Reynolds Price’s first novel explores the slow loss of innocence and the weariness of experience that accompanies such loss. Rosacoke Mustian is one of a long literary line of young Southern women, including Janie in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Celie in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), Mary Faith Rapple in Valerie Sayers’s Due East (1987), Hulga/Joy in Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” (1955), and Temple Drake in William Faulkner’s Sanctuary (1931). All these characters must come to terms not only with the mysteries of sex and love but also with the meaning of life in places where their identities are dictated largely by family and culture. Although Rosacoke has mastered the role of dutiful daughter and provides some measure of stability to a family that is otherwise quite fragmented, she yearns to feel the powerful shudders of desire that accompany the loss of sexual innocence and to transform herself into a strong woman who controls her sexual and personal destiny. Rosacoke is dead certain that she can accomplish this by giving herself to Wesley Beavers, a young man she has been seeing on and off for eight years.
It is a proof of Price’s great skill as a writer that he can introduce in the 192-word sentence that opens the novel all of the sexual tension, animal passion, and sacrifice that animates the relationship between Rosacoke and Wesley. First, Wesley is a powerful and cunning animal. His last name, Beavers, signals his animality, and his motorcycle is adorned with coon tails and a sheepskin seat, illustrating his closeness to the energy and potency of the animal world. Second, his lithe and powerful body is like a snake as it leans into the curves on his motorcycle; the snake also symbolizes fertility and the crafty creature that deceived the woman in the Garden of Eden. Third, Wesley possesses all of the power in this opening sentence, as Rosacoke is described as “maybe his girl and maybe not.” Fourth, this scene symbolizes an attempted seduction and its failure. Rosacoke sits with her legs spread on the sheepskin seat of the motorcycle and lies against his back as though asleep. As Wesley speeds up to pass the cars in the funeral procession, however, she says “Don’t” to his back, and her white blouse blows out behind her like a flag of surrender. Finally, the two characters are traveling to Mount Moriah, which, in Genesis 22, is the scene of Abraham’s aborted sacrifice of his son, Isaac. In the novel, Mount Moriah is the name of the church where family are mourning Rosacoke’s friend Mildred, who sacrificed her life to give birth to a baby whose father nobody knows. Wesley is carrying Rosacoke headlong to a place where he will ask her to sacrifice herself to him.
If Wesley Beavers possesses all the power in the opening sentence, however, he does not retain it throughout the narrative. In the middle of the novel, after Rosacoke sacrifices her virginity to Wesley, the power eventually shifts to her. After a Sunday afternoon picnic in Mr. Isaac’s woods (which have a potently symbolic name), Wesley and Rosacoke stay behind after the others have left. Wesley tries to seduce Rosacoke, but she rebuffs him because she has seen him playing fast and loose with another woman, Willie Duke Aycock. Wesley then leaves the small town of Afton for the city of Norfolk and a job selling motorcycles. Rosacoke writes to him, trying to keep herself on his mind, but Wesley responds very little, for he is enjoying sleeping with many other women in Norfolk.
When Wesley returns to Afton a few days before Thanksgiving, he never gets in touch with Rosacoke. She, however, subtly seeks him out, plotting her seduction of him. After getting him to drive her home, she looks for signs that she...
(The entire section is 1,265 words.)