The Store is the second book in Stribling's Vaiden Trilogy. Set in northern Alabama in 1884, the story deals with Colonel Miltiades Vaiden and his ascent back into the middle class. The South's loss of the Civil War and the subsequent end of slavery cost him his trio of professions as: an overseer on a cotton plantation, an officer in the Confederate Army, and a leader in Ku Klux Klan. (So obviously, he's a *gem* of a guy.) Colonel Milt and his homely wife, Ponny, who he generally holds in contempt and treats with disdain, have fallen on hard times; yet he refuses to accept any personal responsibility for his lowered position, choosing instead to blame others at every turn.
The major action of the novel surrounds Miltiades' dubious decision to steal cotton from his employer, Mr. J. Handback, and the calamitous series of events that follows the theft. Due to a decades-old business transgression of Mr. Handback's against his family, Milt felt entitled to the cotton he stole and the money it brought. He felt it was owed to him. He did not, however, feel compelled to share the spoils with his siblings, who were arguably equally wronged by Handback's past shady dealings. In the same way it was obvious to the reader that Mr. Adams' theft of the glue formula was absolutely wrong in the previous Pulitzer-winner Alice Adams, so too is it obvious that Colonel Milt's appropriation of Mr. J. Handback's cotton is wrong.
Miltiades Vaiden is a terrible person. Here is a list of some of his more reprehensible qualities and actions in The Store:
- He's racist.
- Years ago he raped a black slave woman named Gracie. The regret he feels at the memory of the rape is not due to the fact that he knows that rape is morally wrong, but rather that he degraded himself by sleeping with a black woman. Because...
- ...he's racist.
- He treats his wife, Ponny, terribly. He only married her hoping her father would die and leave his money to her. Which doesn't happen.
- Prior to marrying Ponny he was engaged to another woman, Drusilla, but before ending their engagement he made sure he slept with her first.
- At the end of the book, after Ponny has died in a most pitiful fashion, he marries Drusilla's daughter, Sydna, who is 30 years his junior, despite having once slept with her mother and the fact that his own nephew is terribly in love with her.
- He steals a bunch of cotton from J. Handback and sells it for a sizable sum of money.
- He coerces Gracie (yes, the woman he once raped) into hiding the money for him, without any consideration for the great personal risk she is taking in aiding him in the crime. Why would he give her any consideration? After all, she is black, and a "Vaiden negro," and somehow bound to him because she served his family as a slave back on the plantation WHERE HE RAPED HER. Because...
- ...he is really racist!
- Later, when he is in a tight spot financially due to his own poor money management, he seeks to deprive his black sharecroppers (Gracie again. And her son, Toussaint, who is actually his son, because he raped her!) of their tools so that he can sell them to make some quick cash, knowing full well that losing their equipment will prohibit their ability to harvest their crops, and therefore impoverish them. Which he really doesn't care about, at all.
- Because he is really, really racist.
Landers is set apart, separated from the other white characters by both his slightly supernatural characteristics, as well as his treatment of the town's black residents, whom he treats with genuine equality of heart and mind, and complete compassion. For much of the novel I felt that Mr. Landers' purpose was to provide contrast as the sole humane white man in a sea of racists, I thought he was a symbol of hope. As he fights for Toussaint's life near the end of the novel, he makes an impassioned plea for assistance to Milt's nephew, Jerry:
This passage strikes me as profoundly true. It's so obvious - we are all human beings. And yet as the novel's closing events transpire it becomes clear that rather than serving as a symbol of hope, Landers is just the opposite. He is a sad indicator of how little hope Stribling saw for white Southerners to progress in their way of thinking about and treating black Americans.
There is a lot to ponder about this story, but the single most important takeaway for me was Stribling's basic conclusion that the American South was, is, and always will be a white man's country. At one point the Governor of Alabama, who is also an attorney, says just that in a courtroom where his white client is being sued by a black man, and he's attempting to have the case dismissed because (sarcasm) how could a black man ever have the law on his side if his complaint is against a white man? His characters repeatedly prove that in the post-war South racism was such a deeply ingrained aspect of white culture that it would require generations and generations of conscious, deliberate effort - both personal and political - to eradicate. He made these conclusions in the 1930s, and sadly in 2013 it is all too evident that we've still got a long way to go.
Stribling addresses many other racial themes in this novel, and his black characters represent a wide range of cultural perspectives. I could dedicate an entire second blog post just to that topic! The idea of hypodescent is extremely important to the plot, and if you've never heard of it now's a good time to look it up, as it's basically the way race is assigned in America.
The next novel on the list is set in rural Georgia before, during and after the Civil War. And no, it's NOT Gone With the Wind, not yet. It's called Lamb in His Bosom, by a woman named Caroline Miller. I've actually already started it and am loving it so far. Fingers crossed it stays that way!