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The voice at the back door (original 1956; edition 1956)

by Elizabeth Spencer

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942128,437 (3.65)8
Member:richardderus
Title:The voice at the back door
Authors:Elizabeth Spencer
Info:New York, McGraw-Hill [1956]
Collections:Read but unowned
Rating:***
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The Voice at the Back Door by Elizabeth Spencer (1956)

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Rating: 3* of five

The Book Report: Travis Brevard is dying, and he knows it. For years, he's kept the lid on his county, the sheriff without rivals or challengers, turning a blind eye to what suits him not to see and zooming in like an owl on a mouse if he's a mind to; but this 1949 day, his life is over and he knows it. Not convenient with a tax list in his pocket, doom for them that hasn't paid and salvation for the elect on the list, and an election before too long. Looks like Travis needs to make sure there's an anointed successor.

He chooses Duncan Harper, town grocer, husband of Tinker and still in love with Marcia Mae Hunt, socially far above a mere shopkeeper and son of a shopkeeper; now returned to her hometown, a war widow, and a source of anxiety for Tinker...and Duncan.

So is set in motion the plot of Antigone...the power change is coming, huzzah huzzah, but not without deaths and secrets exploding in the faces of all and sundry. King Creon's role is assumed by Jimmy Tallant (formerly the swain of Tinker), a bootlegger who advocates for the power of the state and the adherence to the law, albeit as the law is actually practiced if not written. Antigone, mourning love lost or died, is Duncan's role, the advocate for the right of the actual people, as opposed to the state-constituted We-the-People, to assemble and thereby agree on and cause change.

The structure of the argument between the two forces is the campaign for sheriff, eating up that entire summer. At the end of the book, a crime is resolved, the new sheriff is baptized in the deep and cold pool of race and politics as practiced in the Southern States since the end of Reconstruction exactly as in ancient Athens during its civil unrest and social change during Sophocles' time, and a tangle of old feelings, old hurts, and old bonds reformed...all the same strands that drama has always woven into cloth, whether whole and bright enough of color to last for centuries or not, since catharsis was invented by the priestly healers and crying in reflected rage and pain was recognized as more medicinal than the finest potions or pills could ever be.

My Review: Spencer's well-mannered Southern-lady language, with its stateliness and its rather deliberate pace, will likely jangle in modern ears. Her liberal (!) use of the n-word (I loathe political correctness, but I was raised by a mama who thumped me if I uttered that word because it was disrespectful of people I'd never met, and that was Not Allowed, so I just can't type it...I flinch too hard, waiting for the blow) is not of today, not done in coolness. (I go on record here as thinking that behavior is not cool, no matter who does it. I also don't like constant swearing for the same reason: It's not cool. It's just ill-mannered.)

Well, anyway, this novel won the 1957 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, at least according to the jury, but the board declined to award the novel the prize. Rather like 2012, the board felt the jury chose an inadequate exemplar of the year's American fiction crop. Happen I agree, in this case, as I agreed with the board's 2012 decision not to award a prize to any of the literary chaff nominated by the 2012 jury. Only I can't find a list of the other books the judges considered, so I can't say I the board was simply being conservative (in 1957, remember, the Little Rock riots happened and LBJ got the first-ever civil rights legislation through a very very very scared and divided Congress, so there's some logic to this) or if the field consisted of microbooks like it did this year (srsly, Swamplandia! for a still-major literary prize?! Sheesh).

This isn't High Literature, and it's nowhere near as good as Spencer's short fiction. It's just fine. It's a middlin'-good story, it's got nicely drawn characters that I've already gone hazy on, and it's got a few lovely turns of phrase that are so typically Southern that I felt no need to note them down.

I'd put it in the Better Beach Reads category of my own private bookstore. More meat than shudder Dan Brown. A book for Rehoboth Beach, not Venice Beach. ( )
1 vote richardderus | Apr 28, 2012 |
2741 The Voice at the Back Door, by Elizabeth Spencer (read 7 May 1995) This book was written in Italy in 1953 and published in 1956. It is a story laid in Spencer's native Mississippi and the author, when she returned to Mississippi, after Brown v. Board of Education, believed a character who believed in fairness for Negroes and ran for sheriff would then be impossible. Now the book tells of another age, with blacks being regularly elected in Mississippi. This is an excellent book, and while it does not have a happy ending, I found the ending moving and satisfactory--it is a powerful indictment of most Mississippi whites the way they were. This is a great book and Spencer is an able writer. ( )
1 vote Schmerguls | Mar 4, 2008 |
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To David and Justine Clay
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On a winter afternoon, unseasonably warm, a car was racing over country roads toward town.
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