Grisham has written a wonderfully refreshing book. He is a fine writer, and I think he dwelt a bit too long and too timidly in the familiar swimming hole of the legal thriller. This is a really strong, well-written novel, steeped in the deep South (USA) in the 1950’s. For those of us up north who heard in school that the cotton weevil ended cotton farming soon after the end of the Civil War, Grisham has news. The protagonist and narrator is a seven year old boy named Luke Chandler. He is wise beyond his years, but I bought the premise for two reasons. First, it is discreetly revealed up front that he is academically talented, and so having him able to analyze things that an average 7 year old cannot, becomes believable. Second, he has no siblings, but has been raised in an all-adult household, a big frame house (NOT painted) that somehow houses himself, his parents, and his paternal grandparents. His “buddy” is 12 years older than himself. Uncle Ricky is his father’s younger brother, and is fighting in Korea, and anxiety over his well-being filters in and out of the myriad other anxieties that went with cotton farming. Though the Great Depression officially ended with WWII, small farmers (80 acres plus “the garden”, which is vastly larger than any ordinary suburban garden) in the deep south are living decades behind those in cities. They have water from a pump out front, and an outhouse. There is electricity, convenient but expensive. There is no telephone. The latter is viewed with cheer; it gives neighbors permission to visit one another without advance notice or an appointment, and there is a tacit understanding that this will happen mostly in the off-season. Winters are for rest and hospitality; summers are for work. And they ALL work. The two men haul huge cotton bags along with the workers they’ve hired, and they bring in 100 pounds of cotton off their own backs every blessed day, rising at 4, finishing at dark. It is a grueling existence. The women, including the grandmother, spend less time in the fields due to domestic chores. (There is no washing machine). But once they have cleaned up the breakfast dishes, they too are out in the field, leaving earlier than the men to cook a hearty lunch. There is often a break afterward due to the incredible heat and humidity, but because of the ever-present fear of rain, a very real fear, given that their farm is “bottom land” fronting the river, they are out again as soon as humanly possible. The seven year old, whom modern mothers would be taking for play dates and curling up to read with, is expected to haul 50 pounds of cotton daily also. Interestingly however, despite the family’s immense debt burden, he is paid the same wage as the other workers, and may dispense with the money as he sees fit. The two most striking features of this time, place, and way of living that struck me were the stratification of classes and subclasses, and for all the hail-well-met hospitality, a deep sense of privacy, and the need to keep secrets. At first, our young protagonist is weighted with one or two sworn secrets, and they are fairly benign. Later, however, he is beset by some whoppers, ones that could cost someone a life. Beyond this point are spoilers. If you have not read the book and think you may want to, stop here. If you have read it and want to compare notes, keep going.
The social levels are deep and intrenched. The most respected are the small business owners in town, preachers, and the farmers who own land, no matter how heavily indebted they may be. Those next were families like our protagonists, renters. Again, their debt level might be heavy, their clothing worn and not abundant, but they could hold their heads high, be church deacons, and be well regarded socially. After that, there is a large drop. On a similar social par, yet treated differently to an extent, are the hill people (very rarely are they referred to as “hillbillies”) who come down to pick cotton for a summer wage. They are not respected, but they are treated with a certain level of deference, nevertheless, because if they leave, the cotton may not all get harvested, and it is essential that every possible bole be brought from the immense cotton bushes to the truck. Workers are paid according to the amount they pick in weight. They can get away with a certain amount of disrespectful talk and obnoxious behavior because it will be hard to replace them once harvest season has begun.
On a social par with hill people, but considered more of a community responsibility, are the sharecroppers. Sharecroppers are considered to be above Mexicans only. (There do not appear to be Black people, at the time referred to as ‘Negroes’, in this town or its surrounding community). One does not interact socially with them; they are wage-slaves, forced to give most of their crop to the landowner, and often suffering from malnutrition. They are described as thin and dirty. They are so demoralized that no real attempt is made to teach their children manners, and any discipline meted out is so extreme that it would earn them a trip from a social worker today (assuming someone told; it might be the local “secret”, though nothing to that effect is said; it is considered typical sharecropper behavior). It is considered “Christian duty” to feed extra vegetables from the garden to the sharecropper’s family, and the giving is done in such a way as to protect, to the extent possible, the pride of the recipients.
The local sheriff, known as Stick, has no respect from anyone. This appears to be because he DOES NOT WORK. The work ethic in this town goes wide and deep. While respectable people are in the fields breaking their backs from sun-up till sundown, the sheriff “takes naps in that patrol car” and comes around “nosing into things” when a crime has been committed. In point of fact, two murders take place more or less under his nose, and no one, not ANYONE will give him the full story. Luke is witness to both murders. They are SECRETS. Later, when he finally confides in his grandfather at a time when knowing the facts will not mean economic ruin for the family, he is told that he “did the right thing” in keeping his mouth closed. “Are you gonna tell Gran?” he asks his grandpa. “Nope.”
Mexicans, even those who have far better manners and are far more tidy when they depart the Chandler farm, who do as they are told (with one singular exception, and even he was sorely provoked) are on the bottom of the social heap, and racism is not veiled, it is right out there in the open. “The Mexicans” are provided for well, just as the hill people are. They are given lodgings in the barn, and Kathleen, Luke’s mother, has been campaigning for them to be brought in for picking season in a bus, not heaped on the back of trucks where they will become parched and sunburned. She puts out quilts and pillows in the well-swept loft, and takes them big baskets of vegetables “that they like” from her garden, and introduces these as part of the wage package, so that they will not feel they are accepting charity; her decency is above that of most white folks. But they are Mexicans, and when one of the hill people, a 17-year-old named Tally who has told Luke she’d like to go north and never pick cotton and see real snow, runs away to marry one of them, the whole Chandler family feels sorrow for the degradation to which the hill people have been submitted. The hill people’s head of household even suggests his daughter has been kidnapped, until a letter is found from his daughter, at which point the pretense implodes and the reality, that his daughter genuinely fell in love with someone with dark skin, is laid bare. The word “humiliation” is used repeatedly.
The hill people, though they work for a wage and are poorly clad, actually enjoy a higher standard of living than the farmers do. One of them, Hank, who bullies young Luke in unconscionable ways that he keeps “secret” so his father will not have to dismiss him and lose the whole family’s labor, brags endlessly about how his family has a car and a painted house. It is the disabled family member who takes pity on them, and together with funds earned by Tally, secretly begins to paint their house white.
Kathleen Chandler accompanies Gran more than usual to visit the sharecropping Latcher family with vegetables these days. They have been enlisted by the local church ladies, who want to know the Latchers’ secret. It is rumored that their fifteen year old daughter has become pregnant, and as the Latchers’ nearest neighbors, they have been deputized to learn the truth. Gossip is not viewed as unchristian, but is almost the only form of recreation available in this insular community. But the girl is kept deep inside the house, and Darla,the Latcher family’s mother, is lightning-quick at greeting them on the porch so that they can’t come inside. Ultimately, the secret is made manifest when the truth of Libby’s pregnancy is doubled with another, closer-to-home truth: Ricky, the 19-year-old who is away fighting in Korea, is the baby’s father. It is of course only Libby’s word…except for the fact that both Chandler women say that the baby boy looks just like Ricky. Again, Luke forsees humiliation and public shunning as real possibilities. NO ONE is supposed to even socialize with a sharecropping family unless they, too, are sharecroppers.
Then there is the house. It had been secretly painted in a back corner. About half the farmers had painted houses and half did not, so until now, having an unpainted house meant no embarrassment locally. Now, however, a house that is partly painted is just not acceptable. Because rain has ruined the crop and left his parents destitute, Luke gives up his dream of a Cardinals jacket to wear to school when it starts close to Christmas, and instead invests his own money in paint and brushes. Once more, Tally kicks in and buys more too, and hill people, Chandlers, and Mexicans all paint 3 sides of the family home. The Mexicans display gratitude this way because they know other farm families do not always show respect by offering bedding, clean sleeping quarters, a fan, and vegetables. They can’t pick because the crops are flooded, and while Eli Chandler, the patriarch, seeks employment for them elsewhere, they burn off the boredom by helping Luke, side by side. He begins to perceive that the Mexicans are real people.
Later, when the rains come harder, the Latchers are in danger of drowning. Eli and Luke’s father take him with them to rescue all eleven Latchers, and temporarily house them in the barn. Though Gran insists that they have enough to feed everyone in their own family and the Latchers too for the next 6 months, Luke isn’t so sure. Gran is doubling the food in her mind, but the Latchers have twice as many family members, including Ricky’s baby, who will only stop crying for the ultimate, unheard of luxury of store-bought vanilla ice cream.
Kathleen Chandler, the mama, has the final word, at least when it comes to Luke’s future. All along, she has told him he will NOT become a farmer. She has shared the home and kitchen of her in-laws with decency and grace for seven years or more; one year, Luke’s father went north to Flint, Michigan and worked in an auto plant long enough to cover all or most of the debt incurred, and then brought it home. Kathleen has gone to work on her husband. She wants to go to Michigan, for him to go to work in the plant (where his obnoxious but helpful brother has a job waiting for him), and leave the cotton fields, the dirt, and the poverty behind forever. They will have indoor plumbing, drive a car (“unheard of” in their tiny community, where everyone owns a truck for farming), and maybe even have a television set. And this is the most fascinating to me of all: ultimately, the second-most powerless person on the surface, after Luke only, is the one who determines her family’s fate. In the home of her in-laws, she has little to say and is occasionally overruled even in the discipline of her own child (though she usually prevails in that venue, as well as the vegetable garden, which will keep Gran, Grandpa and the Latcher family from starvation after they leave for Michigan). In the end, Luke states, the “final word” in what will happen to his smaller family–himself, his father, his pregnant mother (but that’s a secret)–will be up to his mother. His mother is the one who persuades his father that the time to break loose has come. They leave behind a painted house, with only a few boards at the top left undone when the paint and money ran out. His grandparents promise that when he “comes home”, those boards will be white, but Luke understands that he will never live in the painted house in the Arkansas hinterland again.