Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1579
First published: 1943
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Regional romance
Time of work: Twentieth century
Grandpa Tussie, head of the Tussie clan
Grandma Tussie, his wife
George Tussie, his brother
Uncle Mott Tussie, his son
Uncle Kim Tussie, his deceased son
Aunt Vittie Tussie, Kim's wife
Sid Seagraves Tussie, a grandson
There was trouble at Grandpa Tussie's. In the coal shed behind the schoolhouse where the Tussies lived, Uncle Kim's body was beginning to smell. Kim Tussie had been killed in the war. The government had sent his body home, and now the Tussie clan had gathered for the funeral. Kim's folks, Grandpa and Grandma Tussie, comforted Aunt Vittie, Kim's wife, who was screaming and wailing. Uncle Mott, Kim's brother, was telling how he had identified the body. Sid, Kim's young nephew, was just excited. There had not been so much going on since he could remember. The noise the Tussie kin made as they carried the coffin up the mountainside could not soon be forgotten by a young boy.
Uncle Kim had left Aunt Vittie ten thousand dollars in government insurance, and the day after the funeral, she rented the Rayburn mansion and filled it with new furniture, all ready for Grandpa and Grandma, Uncle Mott, and Sid to move in. It was the biggest and best house any of the Tussies had ever seen. Uncle Mott flicked the electric lights off and on all day. Sid used the bathroom over and over. Aunt Vittie bought them all new clothes to go with the house. To Sid it was all wonderful, but his happiness was spoiled a little when he realized Uncle Kim had to die in order for the rest of them to have that splendor.
The next few weeks were really a miracle in the lives of the Tussies. Grandpa continued to get his relief groceries, and Aunt Vittie bought more groceries at the store. Grandpa began to look for more of the Tussies to come when they heard about the money. Grandpa thought his brother George would be the first. Brother George had been married five times. He could play a fiddle till it made a man cry.
Grandpa was right. When George heard about the money, he decided to come home to die. Uncle Mott hoped that that time would come soon, but Aunt Vittie looked at George and smiled. George played his fiddle far into the night, playing tunes Aunt Vittie asked for, and Grandpa knew George had come to stay. Aunt Vittie bought George new clothes, too, and Uncle Mott began to look mean.
Then more Tussies came, first Uncle Ben, then Dee, then young Uncle Ben, then Starkie, then Watt, then Sabie, then Abe, all with their wives and young ones. The mansion was ready to burst. Only Grandpa knew them all. When Grandma counted forty-six of them, she would stand for no more.
The money began to go fast. Sid knew now why Grandpa and Grandma had not cried at Kim's funeral. They had known Aunt Vittie would get the money, and all the Tussies would live high. Brother George's fiddle playing had Aunt Vittie looking as she had never looked before. Uncle Mott was losing out, and he looked dangerous.
Grandpa knew things were bound to change. He was right. First the government man came and stopped their relief. It hurt Grandpa to lose his relief. He had had it for years and had expected it to go on forever. Then George Rayburn came to inspect his house. When he saw the floor full of nail holes, the broken windowpanes, the charcoal and pencil marks on the walls, he threatened to bring suit if the Tussies did not leave at once. The uncles, the brothers, and the cousins twice removed, however, refused to leave. It was not until Sheriff Whiteapple came with the law papers that they knew they were whipped. That night there was the grandest dance of all. Aunt Vittie kissed Brother George and then she kissed Uncle Mott, but not very hard. It looked as if George were winning.
The next day, the Tussies began to leave. Grandpa and Grandma, Aunt Vittie, Brother George, Uncle Mott, and Sid were the last to go. Aunt Vittie had bought fifty acres of land and an old shack with the last of her money, and she put the farm in Grandpa's name. They had no furniture, no sheets, no dishes, since Rayburn had attached everything to pay for damages to his house. There was only Grandpa's old-age pension check to look forward to. Uncle Mott and Brother George made a table and sapling beds and Sid found their old dishes in the gully by the old schoolhouse, and the Tussies began living as they had always lived.
Then came the worst blow of all. Someone had reported that Grandpa now owned land, and his old-age pension was stopped. Sometimes there was not enough to eat. Uncle Mott and George began to look dangerous. Sid knew bad trouble was coming. After Brother George and Vittie were married, Uncle Mott usually stayed in town, drinking bootleg and getting mean drunk.
Grandpa knew his time on earth was about up, but he felt something was going to happen that he did not want to miss, and he was right again. Uncle Mott came home from town one day and told them that he had found young Uncle Ben and Dee and had shot them for reporting Grandpa to the relief agency. As Uncle Mott talked, Brother George began to stroke his fiddle, and he played a note of death. Uncle Mott, cursing the fiddle for being the cause of all his trouble, shot the fiddle from George's hands. George drew his gun and shot Uncle Mott through the head.
Aunt Vittie had been to town, too, begging food for Grandpa and the rest, and now they saw her coming, walking close beside a strange man. That is, he was a stranger until he came nearer, and then they saw that it was Uncle Kim, who was supposed to be buried on the mountainside. When George saw the ghost, he went through the windowpane; but it was simple for Sheriff Whiteapple, when he came a little later, to follow his footprints in the snow.
After Kim had explained that he had not been killed after all, they began to understand what had happened. Uncle Mott had always wanted Aunt Vittie, and it had been easy for him to identify a body as Kim's. Kim told Sid that he was Aunt Vittie's son, that she had been wronged by a rich man who paid Kim to marry her, and that now Sid would be their son.
That night, it was as if nothing had happened, except for Uncle Mott's body in the shack. To Sid it was like a dream, but a dream with life in it. For the first time he began to feel really good. Peace had come to the Tussies.
Jesse Stuart, who came into sudden fame with his book of Kentucky poems, MAN WITH A BULL-TONGUE PLOW, continued to use this familiar background in the series of novels and short stories that followed. Stuart displays a great understanding for the people about whom he writes in TAPS FOR PRIVATE TUSSIE. In this novel of the Kentucky mountain people, the plot is unimportant; the characters are the story. Stuart's treatment of this region grows out of his deep familiarity with the place and its people.
Although it may seem on the surface no more than the comic tale of the determination of the shiftless Tussie family to survive without work, TAPS FOR PRIVATE TUSSIE, on subtler levels, encompasses serious literary and social dimensions which justify its reputation as Stuart's best novel. Like Mark Twain and William Faulkner, with whom he shares a number of qualities, Stuart wrote in the tradition of the frontier humorists of the past century, employing the vernacular style and episodic form to record the unique characteristics and folk customs of a dying culture. Also, as in the works of Twain and Faulkner, death and violence are just below the comic surface in Stuart's novels, mitigating his comic vision with a sense of the tragic in life.
Shiftless and lazy though they are, the Tussies are more victims than victimizers, and the reader's sympathy for them is based on this fact. On one level, their determination not to work parodies the traditional independence of the mountaineer who called no man master. Yet, the tragic cost of this false freedom has been their traditional integrity and heritage—the loss of which is implicit in the Tussies' support of the county Democrats in return for welfare groceries. As they become increasingly dependent upon a destructive welfare system (and increasingly shiftless), only Grandpa Tussie, the benign old patriarch who holds the clan together, keeps alive the mountaineer's traditional love of the land.
Ironically, when Grandpa Tussie finally achieves his dream of owning a farm, the clan is much worse off than before, as they lose their welfare benefits but can no longer resume the life of independence and dignity the farm once offered. As Twain saw romanticism destroying the South, and as Faulkner linked its fall to the "curse" of slavery, Stuart seems to have prophesied in 1943 the threat modern welfare systems would become to the traditional world of his Southern Appalachians.