Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 859
An early section in Gardner’s novel describes the annual cycle of backbreaking labor for rural Vermonters. The passage concludes, “Now, in October, the farmwork was slackening, the drudgery had paid off. . . .” This is, however, an ironic observation: For seventy-two-year-old James Page and his eighty-year-old sister, Sally Page Abbott, the “harvest years” have brought no payoff. James, though honest, hardworking, and fiercely patriotic, can barely wrest a living from the family farm—where he has lost one son to a fall from the barn roof and another to suicide by hanging, and where cancer has claimed his wife. Sally, the widow of a prosperous dentist, may enjoy happier memories, but she is no better off than James. Her insurance money depleted, she has been forced to give up her town home and accept her brother’s grudging hospitality.
Between two persons who feel so cheated by life, and who harbor such strong and conflicting opinions (Sally is a “progressive” compared with James), life is at best an uneasy truce which is easily broken. One night, a blast from James’s shotgun destroys Sally’s television, with its “endless simpering advertising.” Soon after, furious because she defends “corrupt” government programs, James chases Sally upstairs with a fireplace log and locks her in her room “like a prisoner.”
So begins a domestic cold war that eventually involves the entire community. James’s daughter, Ginny, remonstrates with him, and for a time he is ready to relent, but it is too late; Sally has bolted her door from within and gone “on strike,” as determined as one of the Green Mountain Boys whom her brother so admires or one of the radical feminists he loathes. James repents of his momentary softening, and, thinking to starve Sally into submission, he relocks her door; unknown to him, she is subsisting on apples found in the attic above her room. She finds mental sustenance, too—in a “trashy” paperback novel that she reads when she is not reminiscing.
Even while she apologizes to her dead husband’s spirit for reading such a book, Sally draws from it moral support for her own “cause.” This tale, The Smugglers of Lost Souls’ Rock, is a quasi-metaphysical satire full of overeducated marijuana smugglers. Its machine-gun-toting characters philosophize endlessly on social issues and protest against a mechanistic universe. To the liberal-minded Sally, the rivalry between smuggling gangs—one black, one white—resolves into a struggle for racial justice. When the white doperunners appear to have killed the blacks (to escape being machine-gunned themselves), she fumes that it is “wrong for books to make fun of the oppressed, or to show them being beaten without a struggle. . . .”
Sally soon comes to identify the “oppressors” in the novel with James, and James with all oppressors: “It’s no use making peace with tyranny. If the enemy won’t compromise, he gives you no choice; you simply have to take your stand, let come what may. . . . Let James be reasonable. . . . It’s always up to the one in power to be reasonable.” She likens James’s actions to the military and diplomatic blunders of the United States during and after the Vietnam War. Yet, muddled, melodramatic, and exaggerated as her pronouncements may be, Sally is nevertheless fighting for her right to make her own choices in life and to express her own beliefs, despite her brother’s categorical rejection of them. As “revolutionary” as James is patriotic, Sally is prepared to kill or be killed for that which she considers her inalienable rights.
Meanwhile, James, buoyed by remembered legends of the patriot Ethan Allen, is busy escalating his side of the dispute. To him, the issue is the death of decency and the increase in the “sickness and filth” embodied, among other places, in Sally’s television: “. . . murderers and rapists, drug addicts, long-hairs, hosses and policemen . . . half-naked women . . . sober conversations about the failure of America and religion and the family, as if there want no question about the jig bein up. . . .” He is determined to punish Sally for bringing this “filth” into his house via her television, determined to make her see the error of her ways. To make sure that she cannot sneak down to the kitchen for food at night, he rigs up a shotgun outside her room, to be triggered by strings if she opens her door.
Horrified when they learn of this, several friends rush to the farm to talk the two into ending their feud. Offended by what he considers their meddling, James stalks out, gets drunk in town, crashes his truck, storms back into his house, and blasts his kitchen walls with the shotgun. In the melee, a dear friend of the family suffers a near-fatal heart attack, and the now-sober James is filled with remorse. Meanwhile, Ginny accidentally walks into a trap that Sally, desperately frightened by the shotgun incident, has laid for James—an apple crate set to fall on his head if he enters her room. Ginny and the cardiac patient are rushed to a hospital in town, and the feud ends with Sally emerging from her room, believing that she has triumphed.
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