Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 923
Recounted after more than forty years by the aging Nat Ramsey, a former Memphis cotton broker and socialite who has since enjoyed a successful career in college teaching, “The Old Forest” recalls one harrowing week in December, 1937, when Nat, about to marry the debutante Caroline Braxley, found both his engagement and his future jeopardized by the aftermath of a freak auto accident and by the unaccountable behavior of the young woman who happened to be riding with him at the time.
Steeped in nostalgia tinged with irony, Nat’s recollections evoke in detail a long-vanished way of life, of a self-styled, self-appointed southern aristocracy that had somehow managed to stave off not only the effects of social change but also those of the Great Depression. Nat’s parents and their friends live in large houses and drive expensive cars, both fully staffed by faithful black “retainers” who minister to their employers’ every need. Nat and his young male friends, just beginning their business careers under the supervision of their fathers, are expected to marry within their own “class,” choosing one of the debutantes prepared for them by years of dancing lessons and finishing school. In the meantime, however, Nat and the other young men-about-town have begun to go out with women of a different sort—the adventurous, assertive “career girls” who staff offices. By Nat’s own wry admission, the career girls are almost invariably better educated, hence better conversationalists, than their sheltered debutante counterparts, with serious interests in books, art, and music. To a woman, however, they are less concerned with where they came from than with where they might be going; to them, the country-club snobbery of Nat and his fellows appears quaint, even laughable. The young men, in turn, “know” that they can never marry such girls, much as they might enjoy their company, and have come to refer to them by the French pejorative “demimondaines,” inevitably corrupted to “demimondames.”
Nat’s crisis is precipitated only one week before his planned marriage to Caroline, when, motoring through Overton Park with Lee Ann Deehart, perhaps his favorite among the “demimondames,” he fails to avoid an approaching pickup truck that has skidded on the ice and snow. Ignoring Lee Ann’s advice to change lanes, Nat stays where he is and sustains minor head injuries when the vehicles inevitably crash. Lee Ann, unaccountably, bolts from the car and disappears into the ancient, wooded portion of the park, the “old forest” of the story’s title. Amid speculation that she has been severely injured, or has since fallen victim to unsavory characters known to be lurking in the deep recesses of the park, or perhaps has even committed suicide for unknown reasons, Lee Ann remains missing and unaccounted for. Unless and until she can be found, Nat’s marriage plans will remain in limbo; neither his parents nor Caroline’s will allow the wedding to proceed under the possible threat of scandal.
Over the next several days, Nat cooperates fully both with the police and with the local press, whose editors are as determined to discover the facts as they are to suppress them: Although friendly with the parents of the prospective bride and groom, the journalists seek also to protect Lee Ann’s reputation from contamination through association with the “idle rich”; working girls read the papers too, and are equally deserving of protection. In time, Nat begins receiving telephone calls from other “demimondames,” who urge him to stop pursuing Lee Ann, who simply does not want to be found. To his consternation, Nat decides that he has been outwitted by a conspiracy of career girls, a “breed” that he continues to regard with some disdain.
In the end, it is Caroline Braxley who takes charge of the situation, asserting the same measure and kind of control that, by Nat’s rueful admission, she has continued to exercise throughout the forty-two years of marriage that have followed. Urging Nat to take her on the same round of interviews on which he had previously accompanied the police, she speaks to one of Lee Ann’s female friends after the other as Nat obediently remains in his car. As a woman, Caroline encounters far less resistance than did Nat; once she has located Lee Ann’s rooming house, she soon proceeds to find the young woman in her final sanctuary, where she has fled since Nat has rendered her earlier hiding places insecure. In one of the story’s more intriguing plot twists, it is revealed that Lee Ann’s ailing grandmother, her closest living relative, is the proprietress of The Cellar, a seedy but popular night spot to which Nat has often taken Caroline but to which, inexplicably until now, Lee Ann has refused to accompany him. Exacting from Nat a solemn promise never to set eyes on Lee Ann again, even now, Caroline proceeds to resolve the situation to everyone’s satisfaction, not least of all her own. As of the present writing, Nat and Caroline have endured many violent deaths in their family during the long years of their marriage, yet no memory, even from World War II, looms so large in Nat’s recollections as that of the accident in Overton Park, and of his wife’s solution to the ensuing problem. In a brief concluding section, Nat even credits Caroline with giving him the courage of his convictions when he prepared to switch careers as he approached the age of forty and could at last afford to do so.