The Rock Cried Out

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

In an early scene of this novel, the young white narrator, speaking in 1978, attempts to justify himself to a black graduate student as having been “too young to know” what was going on when Klansmen in 1964 burned a black church—one of some twenty-seven churches burned in Mississippi that traumatic summer. Alan McLaurin’s plea, at age twenty-eight, for exoneration on the grounds of innocence and ignorance is a significant key to the theme of the novel. Alan learns slowly and painfully that his world allows no time for innocence and does not recognize ignorance as a refuge or excuse. In his conversations with relatives and friends, he gradually discovers who he was and who he has become. He finds that he was indeed innocent and unknowing of large sociological, racial, and historical issues all through his childhood; even though he had seen much, he naturally was not mature enough to analyze and evaluate his experiences. He understood none of it. Moreover, he discovers that he was abysmally ignorant even of matters much closer to him; his family and friends were veritable strangers to him. The manner in which he discovers these truths comprises the novel’s plot, while its theme lies in Alan’s harsh realization that there is no way to avoid the truth forever. The book’s title is taken from an old spiritual which declares, “I went to the rock to hide my face. The rock cried out, no hiding place. No hiding place down there.” The hard rock of increasingly unavoidable reality wears away Alan’s protective veneer and finally reveals the crushing facts of his own real nature, as well as the nature of his friends, relatives, and lovers. The Rock Cried Out is a novel filled with movement, with internal and external journeys. It is a story of discovery, contemplation, and confrontation with some profoundly important human truths.

In this, her third novel, Ellen Douglas has accomplished a difficult task extremely well, constructing a provocative and memorable story from the details of life in the American South. Her story has power and originality and avoids the pitfalls of both romantic and realistic clichés. Readers familiar with authors from William Faulkner and Eudora Welty to Margaret Mitchell, Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, and Tennessee Williams know how difficult such strong talents as theirs have made it to deal originally and freshly with the South and its characters, themes, and landscape. In the hands of lesser writers, the South tends either to be romanticized or made grotesque; plots are often littered with rednecks, downtrodden blacks, cruel sheriffs, idiot preachers, and so forth. By contrast, The Rock Cried Out is about a new South.

The South Douglas depicts is a region still haunted by the past, but invigorated by new attitudes. Her story is about an emerging South willing to grapple with unpleasant truths about itself; it is a region where the romantic tradition of dissimulation is at last fading. Because it is a realistic narrative, The Rock Cried Out retains the standard Southern ingredients: racial tension, miscegenation, sudden violence, dull resistance to change, and a brooding landscape. Over it all, of course, hangs an atmosphere of guilt and hysteria regarding questions of love, prejudice, family, honor, and faith which have traditionally haunted Southerners. These ingredients are not new; Douglas’ treatment of them, placing them wisely in a new and helpful perspective, is new.

In a style that is clear, spare, and precise, yet poetic and moving at times, Douglas tells the story of a modern young man’s unwilling discovery of an act which set into motion events destined to cause him to confront grief, disillusionment, loss of love, and even death. One of the best examples of Douglas’ artistic ability to turn the real Southern landscape into a powerful metaphor is her depiction of a federally leased and fenced-off “SPASURSTA” (Naval Space Surveillance Station) with its sterile towers, revolving sonar dishes, and humming, whirring computers. The station stands in stark contrast to the surrounding deep woods, clay hills, tumble-down houses, and broken-down inhabitants of the old McLaurin farm where Alan comes to write and to learn how to communicate. More is known in Washington about outer space, her imagery...

(The entire section is 1768 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Douglas, Ellen. “Interview with Ellen Douglas: February 25, 1997.” Interview by Charline R. McCord. The Mississippi Quarterly 51 (Spring, 1998): 291-321. A revealing interview in which Douglas examines the nature and importance of identity in America’s rural South. She discusses her background growing up during the 1920s and notes that her characters embody the awareness that she gained from her experiences.

Jean Haskell Speer. “Ellen Douglas.” In Southern Women Writers: The New Generation. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990. A perceptive essay that traces Douglas’s career as a writer and offers some criticism of her works. An ideal introduction to Ellen Douglas.