Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

by Ray Lawler

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Characters Discussed

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Olive Leech

Olive Leech, a thirty-seven-year-old barmaid at the same hotel as Pearl. She is cynical but has an “eagerness that properly belongs to extreme youth.” She appears to have no frustrations about her dull job and seems to take life as it comes. In adjusting to the unconventional relationship she has with a man who comes to town for only five months out of every year, she has blocked off the other seven months of the year, becoming, as she realizes, “blind to what I want to be.” A chance to change the situation with a more conventional arrangement leaves her with a sense of loss and betrayal that borders on the psychotic.

Roo Webber

Roo Webber, a sugarcane worker, tall, thirty-seven years old, with light hair starting to gray. He is masculine but has a streak of gentleness, a mixture that invites confidence. He has had a bad working season because of a pretended back injury that he uses as an explanation of his failure to maintain his position as a champion ganger. In his frustration, he fights with his major competitor, Johnny Dowd. He then quits work before the end of the term and returns to the city, eventually getting a job as a painter in a factory, employment he considers degrading. During his annual layoff, he always returns from the fields to live with Olive, to whom he brings, as a symbol of affection, a kewpie doll. This is the seventeenth year for such a present. For him, the relationship with Olive is only a vacation from his real career in the cane fields, where he enjoys a strong sense of community with his fellow workers. He fears making any commitments that will end such bonding but has come to realize that those days are over. He decides to stay in the city and marry Olive, falsely hoping that such stability will redeem his life.

Barney Ibbot

Barney Ibbot, another canecutter, Roo’s best friend, a few years older than Roo. He is of medium height and solid build, with the beginning of a pot belly. His manner is assertive and confident. He is a heavy drinker. He has had numerous affairs with women and has fathered three children out of wedlock. As he gets older, his conquests are more in the telling than in the observance. He cannot admit that the fun is over, however, and lies as a cover-up. His attempt to re-create the past ends in failure.

Pearl Cunningham

Pearl Cunningham, a large woman with dyed red hair who contains herself in corsets. She is a widow and mother who earns her living as a barmaid. She feels demeaned by her job and would like to get something more classy. Her friend Olive wants to fix her up with Barney Ibbot, but she is hesitant; she blames her hesitancy on her responsibility in bringing up a teenage daughter. Her suspicious, tentative nature changes to possessiveness when she becomes Barney’s lover. Barney does not conform to her idea of respectability. She breaks off the relationship, believing that life should be lived without daydreams.

Emma Leech

Emma Leech, Olive’s seventy-year-old mother. She owns the house where they live, and Olive pays the bills. Emma is “a wizened, life-battered wisp of a woman . . . with no illusions about humanity.” She expects the worst from people and is cynically delighted when her expectations are fulfilled. She is fond of her daughter’s friend Roo and offers to lend him money. Wiser than her daughter, she knows the falsity and fragility of a relationship maintained only during a five-month layoff season.

Bubba Ryan

Bubba Ryan, a dark, shy-looking woman of twenty-two, Olive’s next-door neighbor. She drops in from time to time, and her visits further plot exposition. She becomes involved with a young canecutter, Johnny Dowd. Life with him, she is convinced, will turn out differently from that lived by Olive and Roo.

Johnny Dowd

Johnny Dowd, another canecutter, a large, boyish, friendly-looking man who is twenty-five years old. In asking Bubba to go with him to the races, he provides evidence that seasonal relationships will survive into a new generation.

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