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A Country of Strangers

por Susan Richards Shreve

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Bottom line. “A Country of Strangers” is an intriguing novel, made so by the writer’s imagination and skillful narration.

The characters make the novel. In varying degrees every character is flawed. Before I discuss them, I need to establish the novel’s setting.

Moses Bellows and his wife Miracle and Moses’s brother Guy and his wife Aida are tenants living on a former slave plantation in Virginia twenty miles south of Washington, D. C. The time span of the novel, not counting back stories, is August 1942 to July 1943. John Spencer, the last surviving heir of the family that had owned the property dating back before the Civil War, had disappeared mysteriously January 12, 1935. Moses Bellows, first, and then his wife, brother, and sister-in-law had henceforth lived in the plantation house as if they were the owners. Local whites were furious. In 1939 they formed a committee to find a way to have Spencer declared legally deceased so that the property could be sold and the Bellows evicted. In January 1942 Spencer was declared dead and the house and property were put up for sale. A mid-westerner named Charley Fletcher purchased it.

Moses Bellows. Aida, Moses’s sister-in-law, describes Moses early on as a man who “could make a grizzly have a heart attack on the spot if he’d a mind to.” Physically imposing, prideful, angry with his station in life, Moses, presumably, had been the last man to see John Spencer alive. Spencer had been having sex with Miracle, who suspects that Moses murdered him. Answering her accusations, Moses says that they had not yet found Spencer’s body. Until they do, Spencer is not dead. Therefore, “if he isn’t dead, I didn’t kill him.”

Miracle Bellows. Dutiful, loving, given the name “Miracle” by Moses to replace her real name – “Mary” – because it was a white person’s name, Miracle had been quite young when she and Moses had met. We are told that she had given Moses a picture of Jesus “to keep him pure when she was lamb-innocent and twelve years old and he was twenty, raging with sex and fury at being too long boxed in on one farm in a small town without a future. Furious that their life together had been reduced to eating dinner together “face to face, across the table, but without a word – Miracle looking out the window with her dark sorrowful eyes as if the rest of her life had been snatched away by the absence of John Spencer,” Moses, “with an anger finally too large for the clapboard house, moved into Spencer’s house.” Contributing additionally to her melancholy is that she and Moses have not been able to conceive a child.

Guy Bellows. The author describes him early in the novel as somebody who “did not wish to behave grown-up except when he was drinking.” Inebriated, he became unpredictable, dangerous. A slow but dependable construction worker, “a simple man, easily led, essentially sweet and without complication,” Guy “wasn’t even bothered by the inner plight of being born colored in northern Virginia as Moses was. He had only one Golden Rule … He would not tolerate ridicule. That was that. Not for himself or of his wife or Moses or Miracle.” If anyone made fun of any of them, Guy had declared, he would kill him. He had his shotgun handy for that purpose.

Aida Bellows. Flighty, prone to drinking, hot-blooded, “full of sweetness and temper and trouble at the same time,” Aida “had married Guy Bellows when she was eighteen, and from the start she took charge of him, which was not difficult, because Guy Bellows had locked in step at eleven years old.”

Prudential Dargon. Thirteen-year-old Prudential, staying with her mother’s sister Miracle and Moses, is pregnant. She refuses to identify the impregnator, but narrative hints impugn her father. Miracle and Moses plan to take the child as their own after Prudential gives birth. Ulysses Dargon, Prudential’s father, “was a large angry man … so strong he had a reputation in southern South Carolina for it. But what struck everyone in Okrakan about Ulysses was the clear fact that he would do anything. He had no rules, and when he drank, which was plenty, he beat his wife.” Fiercely independent, Prudential plans to live in New York City after her child’s birth to pursue a career on the radio.

Charley Fletcher. A middle class white man whose mother had insisted that he had a great gift to provide the world, a successful Minneapolis journalist, he had been called to Washington, D. C. after the attack on Pearl Harbor to hold an important position in the newly created newspaper censorship department. Several years earlier he had married a Danish actress, Lara Bergmann, after meeting her at the Olympic Games in Berlin. Seeking a quiet life, a refuge away from the capitol where Lara and her daughter Kate, born out of wedlock, would feel secure, Charley purchased John Spencer’s property. Charley reveals himself to be an insecure liberal. Daunted that he has been turned down for service in the army (he has flat feet), he considers himself inferior to his competitive Minneapolis newspaper colleague, photographer Tom Elliott, who has been accepted into the Air Force. Shamed that he had been declared 4-F, suspecting that Lara and Tom were lovers, Charley had become, too often, impotent. Desiring a singular achievement, Charley wants his family and the Bellows to become friends, socialize, see each other as equals. Moses rebuffs him. Moses’s mother had often admonished Moses about heeding “boundaries,” rules, “how it was important to know the rules and play by them.” Moses did not want to be Charley Fletcher’s or any white man’s friend. Fletcher was violating black and white boundaries.

Lara Fletcher. Unhappy about being isolated on the newly purchased property, desirous of the social life to which she was accustomed, Lara, initially, is resentful of her changed existence. Early in their marriage Lara and Charley had been ardent lovers. She “did not know when the mischief and romance between them had faded, when the love-making had changed. First there were long lapses as if their marriage had become familiar and ordinary and then the kind of awkwardness of characters in a comedy of manners and then after Sam [their infant son] was on the way, the romance was gone altogether.” One hour each weekday while left alone in her private room she daydreamed about Tom Elliott. In her dreams she had been imprisoned by the Nazis in 1940, kept in solitary confinement “because she was beautiful and therefore dangerous.” Before she had been imprisoned, she had met Tom Elliott, a young American photographer. They had fallen in love. The war over, released, returned to Denmark, she is visited by Elliott, malnourished, ill, in need of care. She touches a scar across his left cheek. It disappears. He declares that she is magical. “He took the book from her stomach, put it on the floor, and dropped the sides of her robe.”

Kate Fletcher. Upon arrival at the Spencer property, Kate wants to become acquainted with Prudential. Repeatedly scorned, Kate matches Prudential’s combativeness. An incident at the Quaker private school that Kate attends seals Kate and Prudential’s eventual friendship. Pole Trickett, a male classmate, had pulled Kate behind a bush on the school grounds. Covering her mouth with a hand, he had exposed himself. She had bit him. A day later the principal, responding to Pole’s mother’s complaint, had called her into his office to answer for her behavior. Kate had stated that Pole “took his sticking-out penis from his pants and tried to put my face on it.” The principal, offended by her use of the word “penis,” had washed her mouth out with soap. Encountering Prudential on the way home, Kate declares that she is quitting the school. She states the reason. “I had no idea that kind of misfortune could happen to a white girl, “Prudential comments. Kate responds: “Then you don’t know much. Misfortunes happen to everyone. Even in America.”

Even though they are fully developed, interesting to analyze characters, I dud not empathize all that much with Susan Shreve’s characters. The exception was Prudential. Victimized more than the others by circumstances beyond her ability to affect, she is not afraid to strike back against injustice. While a crowd of whites waits outside the plantation house to witness the Bellowses vacate John Spencer’s house prior to the Fletcher family’s arrival, Prudential leaves through the front door, advances out toward the crowd to the sign near the road that reads “Elm Grove, 1803,” brings it back into the house, paints on the back of the sign “Skunk Farm, 1942,” takes it back close to the road and repositions it, her relabeling faced toward the road. Several months later, having sought him out on the private school’s grounds, she throws Clorox in Pole Trickett’s face.

The author’s writing is solid, in places lyrical. The characters are authentic, imaginatively conceived. Susan Richards Shreve is indeed a professional writer. As I continued to read, however, I became increasingly impatient. Where is this story going? I wondered. It depicts the gulf of understanding between blacks and whites, yes, but any novel that involves the races particularly at that time depicts that. What else? What large purpose? The author chooses a climax. Consequences follow. The end. All of it, I felt, a bit contrived. ( )
  HaroldTitus | Jun 26, 2019 |
A Country of Strangers by Susan Richards Shreve (1989) ( )
  michelestjohn | Mar 26, 2010 |
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