Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 692
The fact that Georgeann and her friends are forbidden by all the women in town to speak to Rose-Johnny is enough to pique the inquisitive eleven-year-old’s curiosity. That Rose-Johnny has become a legendary horror does not frighten Georgeann; it only makes speaking with her a kind of public dare.
Sent to buy chicken mash after school by her parents, Georgeann meets Rose-Johnny. The woman’s very ordinariness almost disappoints Georgeann when she finally meets her: The woman’s hair is cut short like a man’s and she wears men’s Red Wing boots, but the rest of her looks like anybody’s mother “in a big flowered dress without a waistline and with two faded spots in front.” At the store, Georgeann encounters several local men, who try to warn her away from Rose-Johnny. The things they say sound threatening and seem to frighten Rose-Johnny, but they are incomprehensible to the little girl. Georgeann is all the more confused when Rose-Johnny proves to be a kind, likable soul, who even has a sense of humor. Despite the men’s warnings, Georgeann finds herself unafraid of the woman. Trying to make sense of what the men have said, Georgeann asks her Aunt Minnie why girls should not go near Rose-Johnny. Aunt Minnie reluctantly tells her that it is because Rose-Johnny is a “Lebanese,” and that she will understand when she is older.
Georgeann concocts a tale, her first important lie, that will allow her to continue going back to Rose-Johnny’s feed store. She tells her parents that Rose-Johnny is sick and that Mr. Wall, Rose-Johnny’s father and the store’s proprietor, has asked her to help out until Rose-Johnny is better. From Rose-Johnny, the little girl learns to care for the pullets and ducklings, weigh packages of seed, and mix the mash. Impressed by Rose-Johnny’s skills, she comes to admire the woman more each week. Georgeann also learns to respect different kinds of people. After hours, the customers are poor African Americans, whom Rose-Johnny treats well. For the poorest, she reduces prices by more than half. Rose-Johnny takes pains to teach Georgeann all the names of her African American customers, and she tells her to be sure to say hello whenever she meets them on the street, regardless of who is watching.
At school, Georgeann fights one of the Mattox boys when he calls Rose-Johnny and her perverts. Georgeann declares that she loves Rose-Johnny. To everyone’s surprise, though she is younger and smaller, the boy bloodies her nose. The next day, Georgeann asks Rose-Johnny whether the rumors that her father is a “colored man” are true. Rose-Johnny tells her that her father was white, but that every man is some color. Mr. Wall is not her father, but her grandfather; her father is dead. Years ago, her widowed mother loved a “brown” man. After a child was born to the couple, the town lynched the lover and drowned the baby boy in the frozen river, breaking a hole in the ice to do it. To protect her young daughter, Rose-Johnny’s mother cut off Rose-Johnny’s hair and told her to be Rose and Johnny both from then on. She then drowned herself in the same hole in the ice where her baby died. Rose-Johnny says that the men never bothered her after that.
It is the last time Georgeann and Rose-Johnny meet. Georgeann does not know what happens to Rose-Johnny and Mr. Wall, but they disappear and the store is eventually sold to someone else. There are rumors that Rose-Johnny is dead, but Georgeann prefers to believe that she and her grandfather have moved elsewhere.
On the day that Georgeann and Rose-Johnny have their last conversation, Georgeann’s sister, Mary Etta, is attacked by a gang of young men. Although their faces are covered, Mary Etta believes that some of them are from the Mattox family. Georgeann is convinced that this is a case of mistaken identity, and they meant to attack her. She cuts off all of her hair and does the same to a favorite doll, and calls herself George-Etta and her doll Rose-Johnny.
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