Stribling’s talent lies in presenting human characters—specifically, the ways we do and do not perceive our real feelings and motives, the ways in which our self-absorption limits and distorts our understanding of events, and the ways we come to learn who we are. He is not a flawless writer in other respects: several of his subplots just seem to end in mid-air (likely because he intends to return to them in the sequel—this being the 2nd in a trilogy—but that’s no excuse for handling them shabbily now). I’d argue that he’s skilled in setting, but not as skilled as the best writers are: I am not as truly present at Toussaint and Lucy’s wedding, or at The Colonel’s day in court, as I am at Gatsby’s parties or following Newland Archer into Ellen Olenska’s home. Overall, this novel feels to me like the best outing of a merely solid writer—the single All-Star season amid a career of reliable play, the one vivid lead performance for the character actor whose life is otherwise characterized by words like “supporting” and “also starring”. But it’s no less enjoyable for being somewhat anomalous: Stribling finds people and situations worth investing in, and he manages to invest in them.
At the end of the novel, he really does finally bring the boat around (later than I’d hoped and expected) to the course he’s wanted to chart all along—the cruel racial dynamics at the heart of Florence society, the violence that lives underground most days, the simple fact that The Colonel’s inability to recognize “his” African-Americans as real people like him is perhaps his most crucial and lasting flaw. I admire Stribling’s courage in tackling these issues—a Tennessean by birth, schooled in Florence, Alabama, itself, and living in the South throughout his literary career—especially given that 1933 was a long time ago, racially speaking. When The Store hit the shelves in 1933, Plessy v. Ferguson was the law of the land, and racial covenants restricting black families from living in white neighborhoods were perfectly legal. The trend in American society was, bizarre as it may seem, moving towards segregation: the NFL, which had been racially integrated, segregates itself officially in 1933. The Scottsboro Boys had narrowly escaped execution only two years prior, and Billie Holliday wouldn’t sing “Strange Fruit” for another six. For a white Southerner to speak real black characters into the poisoned atmosphere of Southern race relations is a worthy and courageous choice. That Stribling doesn’t do enough to elevate those characters (with one or two exceptions), and that he presents his trilogy as being essentially the story of the white Vaidens (with the black Vaidens as important but lesser elements) is, for me, forgivable. He does as much as an artist like him could reasonably have attempted, and it works on enough levels to be a novel I can still engage with thoughtfully here in 2012.
Lastly, I think Stribling should also be praised for his scope. The novel handles issues of property rights (and legal action), the “mystic ties” that bind old soldiers (and their families), the questions of faith and God and public observance, and a host of other topics too numerous to be listed. He really is trying to capture the feeling of life in a reasonably small town, where everyone is in everyone else’s business. I am glad he chooses to present a small town that is not filled with simple people and simple problems. And I’m willing to accept that a certain amount of the flaws I found in the book—particularly Stribling’s seeming inability to tie up loose ends and make characters and their decisions mean something—are in fact just Stribling’s tacit acknowledgement that lives do not go as easily and sensibly as plots do in novels, and that some things happen because they happen (and not because any later significant events will be connected with them).
Top marks here for Stribling, who is really the first Pulitzer-winning author to deal with racism—the American societal disease—directly and honestly. I’ve had writers who moved above it (Wharton, Cather), writers who played it for cheap laughs (Tarkington) or sentiment (Peterkin), or writers who dealt fairly with non-white characters but outside the paradigm of whites and minorities in American society (Wilder, La Farge, Buck). Stribling recognizes that to tell the story of race relations in the South is to tell our story. That this story can’t really be told until all the people involved are presented as real people. He doesn’t get far enough into the heads of African-Americans for my liking, but he does more than I could ever have expected him to do. My ideas about the South, and about whites and blacks in the South in the 19th Century, are smarter and more complicated than before, and I’m grateful to Stribling for giving me that.
My curious and idiosyncratic reviewing scale gives The Store a “I definitely recommend this book”. It’s not the best one I’ve read yet, but it’s absolutely worthwhile. Some will like it more than others. Some will have a harder time than others with the constant racism and racial slurs used by the white characters. Some will be more or less in need of raised awareness about the racial issues Stribling takes on. But I’d be surprised if anybody who likes a good (and thought-provoking) American novel would be disappointed by The Store. I’m sorry it’s not better known, and I hope its reputation rebounds, since I think it’s a novel that continues to have something to say to Americans.
The Last Word:
As always, I defer to the author for the final words—a last little glimpse at style and content before moving on to the next work. In this case, a conversation from late in the book between two black women, Gracie and Lucy. Gracie is the daughter of a slave woman and a white man—a slave herself once, she became a mistress for many years to wealthy white men, and her son Toussaint “passes for white” in many situations (a source of great pride to Gracie). Lucy is an educated young black woman—she shares her skills with young black children (and occasional white children) in a makeshift schoolhouse in the fields. She is married to Toussaint, and has high hopes for their future. Where my excerpt picks up, The Colonel has just left the two women, having offered Lucy and Toussaint a chance to work for him as domestic servants: Gracie has just asked why on earth her daughter-in-law didn’t jump at the chance:
“Well, first,” said Lucy, “I want me and Toussaint to lead our own sort of lives. I don’t want to be too close to white folks.”
“Too close to white folks . . . why, everything we get is from white folks.”
“We don’t get our hair, or our color, or our voices.”
“M-m . . . we get ’em changed a good deal,” observed Gracie obscurely. “But why do you want to stay here at all if you don’t want to be caretaker of the manor?”
“Because I would like for the colored people in the Reserve to see that a dark woman can live and talk and act with correctness and fineness without being associated with whites all the time.”
“Lucy,” said the quadroon uneasily, “I don’t like the way you look at things. You take a kind of stand against white people. Toussaint thinks everything you do is just right. I hope you’ll never get him into any trouble.”
“The reason I ever loved him is because he didn’t bow his head to anybody.”
“The reason you loved him,” said Gracie with an undertone of bitterness, “is because he is a white man, and you know it.”