Thomas and Beulah

by Rita Dove

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Rita Dove's Thomas and Beulah (1986) won a Pulitzer Prize in the year following its publication. It is a series of poems that are based on the writer's maternal grandparents. The primary setting is the married couple's residence in Akron, Ohio. The writer imparts a magical, poetic quality to her grandparents' ordinary lives. The book is divided into two sections, "I. Mandolin" and "II. Canary in Bloom," recounting the stories of her grandfather and grandmother, respectively. The mandolin for which the first part is named, belonged to her grandfather's late childhood friend, Lem. One day, her grandfather, Thomas, challenges a friend, Lem, to swim to an island from a riverboat on the Mississippi. This led to his friend, Lem's death, from which Thomas never fully recovers.

As a young adult, Thomas moves to Akron Ohio where he works for Goodyear. Here, he courts Beulah (whose family is from Georgia) by playing the mandolin. Later, Thomas works at the giant facility erected for making Goodyear's first giant blimp, which results in an accident injuring a few of the employees. Thomas is haunted by memories of Lem, whom he imagines floating up inside the blimp.

Thomas becomes a grandfather, and enjoys telling stories to his grandchildren (particularly one about a possum, who plays dead though he is really alive). On the way to the drug store to buy medication for his heart condition, Thomas dies from a stroke.

Part II, "Canary in Bloom," begins with Beulah, a dark-skinned girl who is part Cherokee. As a child, Beulah's mother is a washerwoman and her alcoholic father is perpetually unemployed. Beulah dreams of going to Paris, though she never makes it there. At one point, she works at a dress shop (where colored girls work in the back and white girls in the front). As a married woman, Beulah enjoys the contemplative monotony of dusting the furniture in the house while drinking to recall the name of a former boyfriend (which she eventually does). Beulah's development of her maternal instinct is described, alongside her fears that her baby disappears or explodes. Beulah spends her final years afflicted with glaucoma. She cannot see, but feels the sunlight as she lies with her head on a pillow.

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