My hands must have touched a copy of this title innumerable times throughout my career. One or more copies always resided in my library and this title was on our school AP English reading list, but for some reason I never picked it up myself. This year the Adams Central Adult Literati made this a winter reading choice. Seven members attended group and six of us liked it. The seventh didn't dislike it but it wasn't her cup of tea. I liked it very much indeed. We had a great and detailed discussion. This book was published in 1940 and illuminated many issues pervasive in our nation and our culture. As we discussed we realized so much has changed in 70 years and yet so much is still the same.
Silly as it may seem to seasoned readers and to other librarians, I was not aware McCullers was a female and I was finished with the book before I realized that the picture on the cover of my book is her! I have, since finishing the book, looked her up and found many interesting facts. For instance the character Mick and many events containing her are somewhat biographical. Describing what this novel is about is no easy task. With no defined or sequential plot I will say it is a book about people (and there are many of them to keep track of) living and maneuvering in the subcultures of the South during the late 1930s. It almost has the feel of a memoir. It is a coming-of-age story, a story of extreme loneliness, struggle, oppression, and civil disobedience.
In a small town close to Atlanta the reader gets a glimpse of the lives of 17 people whose paths cross and whose lives intersect. They often misunderstand each other and some live their existence not knowing that another is nearby who could or would be of support if they would just reach out. All of the characters have a relationship with one man, Mr. Singer, a deaf mute who lives at the Kelly boarding house. He is like the hub of a big wheel of dysfunctional and lonely people who seek him out because in his presence they feel valued and special. Each character actually attributes to Mr. Singer qualities they believe he has which fill their needs. Whether he has these or not the reader doesn't know. But as each person spends time with him, talking to him, watching his reactions, reading his notes, they work out what they think and what they must do.
Mick Kelly is trying to grow up while shouldering much responsibility. Her father has had an accident which prevents him from holding down any job where he must walk or stand and therefore he is trying to make a go of a watch repair shop in their home. Her mother runs the boarding house with the help of a local black woman. Mick is, in my opinion, the best character in the book. She has drive and spunk with great interest in literature and music. She aspires to study and leave the area to have great adventures one day.
Doctor Copeland the local black doctor supports his community with a purpose and drive that are nearly super human. But he lives a lonely existence since he alienated his family who fled long ago to the home of his in-laws. His children fear him and yet he still tries to instill some drive to better their lot in life only for his “sermons” to fall on deaf ears. Even though it is easy to feel sympathy for the family and to see why they wanted to be away from him, it is still heart breaking witnessing his loneliness for them and feeling his frustration with their lack of motivation and their use of black slang and improper English which he feels is so denigrating. Mr. Singer is the only white person the doctor has ever trusted and feels is an equal.
Jake Blount is a drifter and a drunk. He gets a job as a carnival worker while also reading books about philosophy. The reader doesn't know why he has isolated himself from family and friends but he has some of the best thoughts and lines in the book for examining the times and mores of the 1930s. My favorite is on page 158. Referring to our founding fathers these lines speak volumes;
“They fought so that this could be a country where every man would be free and equal. Huh! And that means every man was equal in the sight of Nature....This didn't mean that twenty per cent of the people were free to rob the other eighty per cent of the means to live.”
The paragraph is much longer and says a lot more but that is the essential part. How much that same sentiment remains today!
Biff the local cafe owner is a wonderful character also. His wife dies leaving him alone and pining for children. He loves his neighbors and he particularly loves Mick Kelly. He gives away food and watches out for his patrons. I think his loneliness is the most troubling because the reader knows he is passionate and good and could be a wonderful family man if he could just reach out.
The scene that haunts me the most happens quickly close to the end of the book. Several are together in Mr. Singer's room and they find they cannot communicate in each other's presence. No one ever asks Singer about his feelings or wants or plans. He is the loneliest one of all and no one seems to notice.
Those are only my favorite characters. This book is so full of things to think about and characters to ponder. Dysfunction and loneliness a plenty to examine, social issues to break your heart and beautiful writing. What else could you want?