Eugene, the youngest child in the Gant family, comes into the world when his mother, Eliza Gant, is forty-two years old. His father, Oliver Gant, goes on periodic drinking sprees to forget his unfulfilled ambitions and the unsatisfied wanderlust that has brought him to Altamont, in the hills of Old Catawba. When Eugene is born, his father is asleep in a drunken stupor.
Eliza disapproves of her husband’s debauches, but she lacks the imagination to understand their cause. Oliver, who was raised amid the plenty of a Pennsylvania farm, has no comprehension of the privation and suffering that existed in the South after the Civil War, the cause of the hoarding and acquisitiveness of his wife and her Pentland relations in the Old Catawba hill country.
Eliza bears the burden of Oliver’s drinking and promiscuity until Eugene is four years old; then she departs for St. Louis, taking all the children with her except for the oldest daughter, Daisy. It is 1904, the year of the great St. Louis World’s Fair, and Eliza intends to open a boardinghouse for her visiting fellow townspeople. The idea is abhorrent to Oliver, and he stays in Altamont. Eliza’s sojourn in St. Louis ends abruptly when twelve-year-old Grover falls ill with typhoid and dies. Stunned, she gathers her remaining children and goes home.
Young Eugene is a shy, awkward boy with dark, brooding eyes. He is, like his ranting, histrionic father, a dreamer. He is not popular with his schoolmates, who sense instinctively that he is different and make him pay the price; at home, he is the victim of his sisters’ and brothers’ taunts and torments. His one champion is his brother Ben, though even Ben has been conditioned by the Gants’ unemotional family life to give his caresses as cuffs.
There is little time, however, for Eugene’s childish daydreaming. Eliza believes that having jobs at a young age will teach her boys manliness and self-reliance. Ben gets up at three o’clock every morning to deliver newspapers. Luke has been a Saturday Evening Post agent since he was twelve, and Eugene is put under his wing. Although the boy loathes the work, he is forced every Thursday to corner potential customers and keep up a continuous line of chatter until he breaks down their sales resistance.
Eugene is not yet eight when his parents separate. Eliza has bought the Dixieland boardinghouse as a good investment. Eugene’s sister Helen remains at the old house with her father; Daisy has married and left town. Mrs. Gant takes Eugene with her, and Ben and Luke are left to shift for themselves, shuttling back and forth between the two houses. Eugene grows to detest his new home. When the Dixieland is crowded, there is no privacy, and Eliza advertises the Dixieland on printed cards that Eugene has to distribute to customers on his magazine route and to travelers arriving at the Altamont train station.
Although life at the boardinghouse is drab, the next four years...
(The entire section is 1219 words.)