Shirley Ann Grau Short Fiction Analysis
Identified at the beginning of her career as a southern writer following in the path of brilliant storytellers such as Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter, Grau gained quick name recognition based on her remarkable use of local color and sensory details. Her early settings often reflect both mood and tone and articulate, with symbols, their thematic or atmospheric effect on characters.
Grau, however, is more than a regional author bound to a southern heritage. Indeed, from 1970 on, she began to shift her settings to other locations, most notably to the Massachusetts coast, and she shifted from a strong emphasis on persons living in poverty to a sharp focus on the very wealthy. Whatever the subject matter of Grau’s stories, however, most are superbly crafted. Grau writes in the mode of the modern short story, making use of a smooth and usually realistic surface of events with an underlying symbolic structure that carries meaning.
Many of Shirley Ann Grau’s early stories are about characters indigenous to the South. They live in bayou villages, in the foothills of the Appalachians, or near the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. Usually her plots involve a narrator who experiences a difficult or humorous moment in time resolutely with no recourse to emotional abandon. In “Pillow of Stone,” from The Wind Shifting West, Ann Marie Landry, although she is pregnant and afraid of water, insists that her husband Raoul take her in a shaky little sailboat in a storm to the wake of her father. As she steps from the boat, her unborn child moves. In “The Other Way,” a black child is taught by her creole elders that she must return to the all-white school to which she has won a scholarship and not mention quitting. The child finds the isolation unbearable, yet she acquiesces. In “The Thieves,” a young woman is able to allow both a real thief and her own young lover to escape without feeling.
“Miss Yellow-Eyes” describes bravery, cowardice, and racial tensions among siblings. Lena, one of three children born to a black couple, is fair-skinned enough to be considered white, while both Celia and Pete have dark complexions. Pete introduces Lena to his white-skinned African American friend, Chris, who becomes Lena’s soldier-husband. Both dream of immigrating to Canada and passing as white, while Pete wants to stay in New Orleans. Chris enlists in the Army and dies fighting in the Korean War; Pete believes Chris’s death is a useless waste.
Shortly after Chris dies, Pete loses an arm in a switch-yard mishap. Celia, aware that Pete feared being drafted, questions whether Pete’s misfortune was really accidental, for his Army induction notice arrives while he is hospitalized. She also begins noticing contrasts of colors in yellow and blue eyes; white and black taxicabs or beaches; bright moonlight, electric lights, and darkness. She ponders as well the victim-martyr name symbolism of Lena (Mary Magdalene) and Chris (Christ). These environmental elements symbolically project Grau’s early ideas and concerns about human subjects and problems.
“Joshua,” in The Black Prince, and Other Stories, concentrates on the universal experience of growing up. The story occurs in the bayou region, Bon Secour, a poor black fishing community. Unpainted houses with tin roofs, a gulf swamp, and constant rain serve as backdrop for Joshua’s struggle to become a man. From the beginning, it is clear that eleven-year-old Joshua is the target for many of the tensions between his parents. The immediate difficulty centers on his mother’s desire for her husband to return to fishing, so that they will have money to buy Joshua a new coat; he refuses because he has seen his friend blown up in the gulf by a German U-boat.
Joshua leaves his argumentative parents, slips on an oil-dipped canvas to keep warm, and, with his friend Henry Bourgeois, spends the night in their hideaway, an abandoned warehouse. During the night a gigantic explosion awakens them; Joshua lights the lamp and leaves it burning as they return to sleep. The next morning Henry suggests that Joshua had kept the lamp lighted because he was afraid. Joshua denies his fear even though Henry heard him crying during the night.
Returning home, Joshua learns that the noise was the explosion of a U-boat. Joshua’s drunken father taunts and physically threatens him if he refuses to take the boat and catch fish for supper. Joshua accepts the dare and, with Henry, sets out in the pirogue. After checking and securing fish from the swamp’s edge, Joshua steers the boat into the swamp. Despite superstitious fears of evil in the icy, water moccasin-filled swamp, he is intent upon seeing where the explosion took place, hoping in this way to prove he is not afraid. When they arrive at the backwater of the river, Joshua spies something blue-colored. He determines to get a closer look, despite Henry’s warnings of danger, and wades courageously through waist-deep waters and debris to the lifeless body clothed in bright blue pants and a brown leather jacket. His fingers white with cold, Joshua takes his tangible reward for his courage, the jacket. In his primal world, Joshua has reached his goal and mastered his test; he has accomplished what his father has been too frightened to do. Additionally, he has proven to his friend that a “real” man refuses to let fear prevent him from taking action or responsibility.
The Wind Shifting West
Eighteen years later, after publishing three novels and receiving a Pulitzer Prize, Grau released The Wind Shifting West. During those years, she replaced the Gulf Coast settings and shifted character emphasis from the poor to the wealthy. Psychological and motivational insights, along with contrast, serve as basic tools to reveal her characters’ universal conflicts or experiences. Many tales in this collection showcase the subject of love, especially love unreturned or denied. Others blend this subject, love, with desegregation, tradition, the 1930’s Depression, and death.
In most of the stories in The Wind Shifting West, Grau carefully describes the colors, clouds, and general plan of the scenery in the first paragraphs. In “The Beach...
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