Years may pass, but ol’ Maum Hannah is still going to make sure that Sister Mary (“Si May-e”, as they all call her when Peterkin’s dialogue-in-dialect rears its head) knows the full consequences of her adultery. Now, admittedly, Mary’s about as adulterous as they come, tracking down as many men, single or married, as she can find (allegedly). I think most people of even relatively open-minded opinions on the institution of marriage would agree that this is, if not “Hell-bound” (to use Hannah’s parlance), at least mildly inconsiderate and selfish towards the women in her community, or at least those whose husbands she is seducing. But Mary’s such an inoffensive character—even here, in her late 30s if not early 40s, she still behaves more like a rootless teenager than a wily seductress (and forget about any resemblance to a world-weary mother of…five? six? I can’t keep track.). It’s awfully hard to envision her as some sort of Delilah-of-the-cotton-fields, even if there is pretty extensive biological evidence of her amorous activities. It’s like Peterkin didn’t fully imagine how this character would be changed by her life, by her responsibilities, her mistakes, her growing awareness of how the world works. To be clear, her disrespect for marriage vows is certainly understandable—she’s been badly treated enough by the one husband she had not to care much for other folks’ husbands. But none of that bitterness or unconventionality is evident anywhere else in her life. She just seems too flat a character to invest myself in, emotionally.
Investing is particularly hard because Peterkin ties her hands with this crazy dialect. Peterkin seems unaware of how Southern black plantation workers really talk, since surely they’re able to say more than she gives them credit for. Their speech is so larded up with filler, cliche, and folksy asides that they can’t get anywhere in a conversation. Most conversations in dialect have one simple goal—Hannah telling Ben and Mary they’re bound for perdition, let’s say—and they get there slowly (and never get away). Conversations just keep recycling: “I ain’ a-goin’ to Hell, Maum Hannah. I’s gwine to get right wi’ the Lord.” “Chile, I’s wishin’ and prayin’ dat you turn to Gawd. You in trouble, fo-true.” “I’s gwine to, once my nex’ baby come. I’s gwine to change.” “Chile, I wish I could b’lieve dat. Promisin’ talk don’ cook rice.” The preceding isn’t a direct quotation, but it might as well be. Imagine that conversation lasting 15 pages. There’s a bit of charm to some turns of phrase, but eventually you realize that you and Peterkin are trapped in a conversation she can’t work her way out of (being limited to a vocabulary of 96 words—97 if you count “fo-true” as two words), and you just might be stuck there until the last trump sounds and Maum Hannah finds out if Si May-e ever did repent like she was gwine to. Mercy.
The sick thing about this is not that Peterkin tries for dialect. It was a common enough approach to light fiction in the U.S., especially a century ago—light fiction that we’ve all but forgotten, of course, given that it’s all nearly unreadable. No, what bothers me is that she has the capacity to write a serious novel, and she’s trying to, and the dialect is like an embarrassing little brother. She keeps locking him in the closet.
Chapter 21 is a painfully excellent example of this. For the first time in a long time (maybe the whole book, alas), I’m really intrigued with the scenario. Mary’s son, Keepsie (don’t ask about the name), lost a leg in an accident with a harvester. She wants good crutches made for him, but the only blacksmith in town is her cousin, Andrew, a pious deacon in the church, and the man who has publicly supported both her and her beloved “uncle” Budda Ben’s ejection from the local congregation. But she goes to see her cousin anyway, and the conversation that follows is a marvel. Andrew has just had a fight with his wife—a horrible, they-may-never-recover fight in which she pushes all his buttons (including a few he didn’t know he had) and he hit her, despite never having done so in his life. So he’s out at the forge taking out some aggression when this sinner cousin comes along. Their conversation is really intriguing. I finally see the Mary I haven’t met: she’s flirtatious but so very subtle, asking questions she can guess the answer to, smiling at the right moments. She’s seducing Andrew unconsciously, without even meaning to, and he plays along. It’s not clear that anything will come of this other than a pair of crutches—certainly Mary’s not trying to get Andrew in bed. Not really. But both of them have gotten better-looking with age while the rest around them are starting to show signs of wear. They’re undeniably attractive. But is Mary so far gone as to seduce her cousin and a deacon, a man faithful to his wife? And will he go for her? I grant you, this is very stock stuff as plot goes: Harlequin can publish 27 of these a year without breaking a sweat. But Peterkin establishes a scenario in an intriguing way, and the story is finally helping me flesh out two characters I’ve known since Chapter 1.
What’s bizarre, then, about Chapter 21 is that the seduction is a verbal one (no physical contact between them is even suggested, and there’s very little use of body language or expression other than a few smiles and frowns), and yet most of the conversation is not spoken but narrated. Mary says X and Y. Andrew says Z. Mary smiles and wonders Q. Andrew leans back against the fence and suggests that A. Quotation marks are almost unheard of here–despite this being a very lengthy conversation, filling 25 pages in my edition, all the written dialogue (in dialect) might fill 2 or 3. Why is this? I think it must be what I’ve already alluded to: Peterkin’s created a discourse for these characters that’s unworkable. She can’t use it to reveal anything other than the broadest strokes of their characters. She can’t use it to distinguish tones and moods very effectively—everything seems to be shouted at about the same volume level. And so here she is, having devised a really nice yet complicated little conversation, and she has to give it all to us in the voice of the omniscient narrator because to do it in dialect would take 167 pages and by the end we wouldn’t have gleaned half as much about these characters as we need to.
There were two ways to do this right, and one to do it wrong but better than this. One right way is to really learn how people speak: to acknowledge from the beginning that speaking in dialect doesn’t make you stupid, and to find a way to write that dialogue so that it’s authentic and conveys all the layers of character you need to. The other right way is to admit that you’re a white kid from the right side of the tracks, you’ll never get the dialect right, and just write the novel with conversations in Edith Wharton’s perfect little sentences—will it be authentic? No, of course not. But we’ll get to know and believe characters about their own stories, and we’ll learn as much as you’re able to teach us about the lives of these sharecroppers in a way that respects their dignity (if not their linguistics). The wrong way would have been to go completely the other way: to write a very simple emotional story with little subtlety, where the limitations of the dialect are limitations of the characters’ ability to think. This would be wrong, as noted, but there wouldn’t be any frustration to it. It would be a cheap sentimental novel about “jes’ plain folk” and earn something by that honesty. But this novel gets the worst of it all. It pretends to respect these characters and their world by letting them speak their own language. Until, that is, anything of value or complexity needs saying, at which point the “black” speech disappears and this very educated “white” voice appears to speak for them, as though they need an interpreter to communicate real thoughts of beauty, love, joy, pain, etc. Maybe I’m wrong to think that the narrator’s voice is automatically “white”, but there’s no denying it’s “other” to this community of black Americans, and that’s the real problem. Peterkin wants to pretend to respect people she doesn’t understand, but has no intention of working at understanding them. That kind of hypocrisy is worse, both as a writer and as a person (to put it harshly), than a more blatant refusal to respect them on any level. Cruelty can be opposed openly and easily. Condescension is a sly poison.
This isn’t worse than The Able McLaughlins. Not yet. But I’m warning you, Scarlet Sister Mary. You’re on thin ice. Fo-true.