Part I: A Line in the Dirt

Glenn Taylor's The Marrowbone Marble Company spans three of America's most turbulent decades. As the novel's protagonist, Loyal Ledford, experiences World War II, the post-war industrial boom, and the Civil Rights Movement, so does the reader. Part I opens in the middle of the night in October 1941 at the Mann Glass Company in Huntington, West Virginia. The first chapter features an eighteen-year-old Ledford tending the raging fire in the glass company's furnace. He has held this position since he was thirteen, when his father's drinking led to a car accident in which his entire family was killed. The glass company's owner showed pity on Ledford by quietly buying his house, allowing him to live there alone, and giving him a job so that he would have "something to get up for every morning." Now he is looking for more in life than tending the fire from four to midnight. He goes to college classes during the day but finds the classes uninteresting. Socially, Ledford does not have many friends, but he eats dinner each night in Mann's cafeteria with Rachel Ball, the factory nurse and the granddaughter of Mann's owner; their feelings for each other are mainly left unspoken at this point in the novel.

Ledford does not have to wait long for something else to come along. The Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, and as Ledford listens to Roosevelt's "Day That Will Live in Infamy" speech, he tells Rachel good-bye and immediately joins the Marine Corps. By August of 1942, Ledford finds himself in Guadalcanal—part of the Pacific arena—and suffers through disease, miserable weather, lousy rations, and horrific memories. A combat incident that haunts him for the rest of his life occurs when he witnesses a young, naïve Marine explode only feet away from him. Later, when a brash Marine named Erm Bacigalupo makes a wisecrack about the deceased Marine, Ledford smashes Erm in the face and knocks out his front teeth. Ironically, Erm saves Ledford's life a short time later, and both men are sent home because of their injuries.

In 1945, almost three years after his time in the Pacific, Ledford marries Rachel Ball. Rachel is an independent young woman not only because of her job as a nurse but also because her grandfather left her all his money. Mary Ball, Rachel's mother, lives long enough to see her only child married and then dies from her advanced cancer the next day. Ledford and Rachel's first baby, Mary, is born in May 1946. Although Rachel and Ledford's marriage is a stable one, Ledford drinks too much and spends too much time (in Rachel's opinion) with his erstwhile combat buddy Erm. Erm is a character foil for Ledford, who strongly desires to do what is right. When Ledford tries to convince Erm that there is more to life than going to the track and spending money on women and booze, the two part ways for a while. The incident does, however, produce a positive change on Ledford's part—he becomes determined to provide for his family, to fight for equality for everyone, and to handle his combat-related flashbacks without using alcohol to self-medicate.

In June of 1946, Ledford talks to a reverend about his interest in furthering the ideals of freedom and equality. The reverend refers him to a professor and World War I veteran named Don Staples, and when Ledford meets him, he has automatic respect for the matter-of-fact professor. As Ledford learns more about civil rights, he is more determined than ever to do his part to initiate change. His first overt action is to rent his old family home to Mack Wells and his wife, Lizzie, and son, Harold. Mack is an African American combat veteran who did not receive the same welcome home that Ledford did. Similarly, Ledford cannot...

(The entire section is 1520 words.)