This slim novel by Carson McCullers is a wonder — nuanced, sensitive, sad, and sometimes funny. Published in 1948, it tells the story of a lonely twelve-year-old girl, Frankie Addams, at the end of one summer in a small southern town. From the beginning sentences, McCullers announces her major theme:
It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had always been an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid.
This summer, Frankie has grown tall and gangly, “almost a big freak,” and she spends hot, monotonous days mostly hanging around the kitchen table with the family cook, Berenice, and her six-year-old cousin, John Henry. Her older brother, an army soldier who’s been living in Alaska, has returned with his bride to get married. Frankie will attend the wedding with her father, and as the book begins, it is this upcoming event that spurs the action of the story.
Frankie sat at the table with her eyes half closed, and she thought about the wedding. She saw a silent church, a strange snow slanting down against the colored windows. The groom in this wedding was her brother, and there was a brightness where his face should be. The bride was there in a long white train, and the bride was also faceless. There was something about the wedding that gave Frankie a feeling she could not name.
This feeling is a confused longing, a desire to be a part of something and to feel loved. Frankie begins to fantasize that the marriage will include her and she will leave the small town with the couple. She knows this is not right somehow, but the wedding takes on a huge significance in her mind of inclusion, or membership. She’s on the cusp of adolescence, caught between the pure naiveté of childhood and the expansion of awareness of adulthood, alone, and craving connection, membership, love.
The only characters in the story are Frankie, John-Henry, Berenice, and a soldier in a bar who tries to seduce Frankie in one of her forays into the town trying to find connection. (She is only aware of sexuality in the vaguest, most tenuous way.) John Henry and Berenice are perfect foils for Frankie’s unfolding inner world. John-Henry is a sponge, repeating phrases he hears and asking how and why questions at odd moments. Berenice is a thirty-five year old black woman with a string of past loves and complex life experience, including an outspoken awareness of race and inequality. She is the only adult that Frankie interacts with daily. These two form a point of reference for Frankie’s sense of self and her fantasy of who she will become.
For a long time now her brother and the bride had been at Winter Hill. They had left the town a hundred miles behind them, and now were in a city far away. They were them and she was her in the same old town all by herself. The long hundred miles did not make her sadder and make her feel more far away than the knowing that they were them and both together and she was only her and parted from them, by herself. And as she sickened with this feeling, a thought and explanation suddenly came to her, so that she knew and almost said aloud: They are the we of me. Yesterday, all of twelve years of her life, she had only been Frankie. She was an I person who had to walk around and do things by herself. All other people had a we to claim, all other except her. When Berenice said we, she mean Honey and Big Mama, her lodge, or her church. The we of her father was the store. All members of clubs have a we to belong to and talk about. Th soldiers in the army can say we, and even the criminals on chain-gangs. But the old Frankie had had no we to claim, unless it would be the terrible summer we of her and John Henry and Berenice. Now all this was suddenly over with and changed. There was her brother and the bride, and it was as though when first she saw them something she had known insider of her: They are the we of me.
Sometimes this story brought to mind the photographer Diane Arbus, who photographed marginalized people — freaks, if you will. I could imagine Frankie in one of her photos, as a tall, skinny, awkward looking girl in the hilarious, sad, and utterly inappropriate bright orange satin cocktail dress and silver shoes she buys to wear to the wedding. Unwittingly, she makes herself into a kind of freak. Carson peppers the story with references to other misfits that Frankie identifies with. For example, Frankie’s recalls the local fair and it’s “House of Freaks” where she paid a quarter to see The Giant, The Fat Lady, The Pinhead, The Alligator Boy, and others. There are little insertions about feeling misfit because of gender and bigger ones about the marginalization of people of color.
I could go on and on about the variety of small details and themes that McCullers weaves so brilliantly into this short novel, under 200 pages. There is not a single word wasted or misplaced. Like Robert Penn Warren, a contemporary of McCullers, I wonder why her novels are not more widely discussed and read. I’ve decided that there is something about the style of writing and theme development of this time period — the 1940s — that I really like.
The cover art for the Time Reading Program reprint of this novel in 1965 is absolutely brilliant, once again. It’s an embroidered illustration done by Leo and Diane Dillon, who also did the spectacular wood carving cover on the The Sea and the Jungle that I read and reviewed in 2015. Just look at how much character and plot is expressed by the shading of the faces and the composition: Berenice’s dark watchfulness over Frankie; Frankie’s sad isolation; looking out at no one, or perhaps the wedding couple floating away from her; and John Henry’s straight-forward gaze of a child. The wedding couple blissfully walk away on the back cover. How did the Dillons capture the groom’s self-satisfaction in his posture and slight smile and the bride’s anonymous, lightness in embroidery? The TRP books all came with bookmarks with additional information, and my copy had one tucked inside. It says that it took the Dillons one month of mutual labor to embroider this illustration in silk on upholstery fabric. It knocks me out.
Have you read any McCullers? Do you have a favorite literary time period? I am not 100 percent sure that what I respond to in Penn Warren or McCullers or Cather is a product of the the time period or simply their unique voices, but it’s why I studied literature in college and why I continue to read.
Originally published 1948 by Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston
This edition reprinted with new preface, introduction, and cover art in 1965 by Time Incorporated.