Character and a sense of place are the two most important elements in this pastoral novel, with the wide cast of characters who represent the clan constituting the very sense of place that is Banner, Mississippi, and its rural environs. Although Jack is the central figure in the work, and his return from prison signals that he will carry on the family tradition, Granny herself is always there as the presiding matriarch, prepared to hand down her leadership role to Jack’s mother, Beulah Renfro. Opposing the values represented by Granny and Beulah is Miss Julia Mortimer, the teacher who tries to bring the new values of education and progress into this rural world.
Representing both sides are Judge Moody, Miss Julia’s first protégée, who, although he has aligned himself with the side of progress, has remained to adjudicate the actions of the rural world, and Gloria, Miss Julia’s last protégée, who is caught between Miss Julia’s realm and the realm of the clan. Gloria, however, has her own aims—to be with Jack and their child, Lady May, without the support of Miss Julia’s plans for her as a schoolteacher and also without subsuming herself within the all-encompassing family life of the clan.
The novel focuses not only on a multitude of individual characters but also on character in the ultimate sense—that is, the strength of character to withstand the many losing battles that constitute life. Although the rural people distrust Miss Julia and all she represents, they must admit that she, like themselves, understands the need to endure, and they begrudgingly admire the strength of her character. Although they know that she was “St. George and Ignorance was the dragon,” they also affirm their own values of personal strength and endurance. As Uncle Curtis says, “There ain’t no end to what you can lose and still go on living.”
Granny Vaughn, the frail and indomitable matriarch whose birthday is the occasion for the family reunion. As small as a boy, she sits enthroned on her rocker, from which she fixes her slit eyes on her well-wishers and tells them just how they measure up or fall short. She claims to be one hundred years old, although she is actually ninety, and she has been saving one family secret for this day when the family history is retold.
Jack Renfro, Granny’s great-grandson and the hope of the family. He is small in stature, unfailingly cheerful, and pleased to do his best to live up to his family’s expectations and take a starring role in the family legend. Escaping from Parchman to be on time for the reunion, Jack unknowingly plays the Good Samaritan to Judge Moody, who sent him to prison. Then, crediting the judge with saving the life of his baby daughter, Jack brings the Moodys home to the family circle.
Beulah Renfro, the mother of Jack and four other children, Granny’s only granddaughter. She is an energetic cook, gardener, and talker, feeding everyone and explaining everything. She protects Granny and draws her authority from the older woman’s while mediating the family stories to the benefit of her favorites. Much as she resents Judge Moody for sending Jack to prison, she cannot refuse him and his wife a meal and a place to sleep.
Gloria Short Renfro
Gloria Short Renfro, a freckled redhead, a passionate wife to Jack and devoted mother to Lady May, intent on leaving Jack’s family behind. She came to Banner to learn from and take the place of Miss Julia Mortimer but fell in love, married, and left teaching, much to the family’s approval. When she leaps in the road to save her baby...
(The entire section is 751 words.)