Life after Work

The Store by Thomas Sigismund Stribling, Pulitzer Winner of 1933

“The Store” is a very interesting book because it deals with the Reconstruction period after the Civil war, a time I don’t know much about. It seems as if all too often in documentaries, the story ends as slaves are freed and the assumption is that “they lived happily ever after.” But of course, reality begs to differ. “The Store” tells of the small post-war Southern town of Florence, where White folks are trying to hang on to their customary lifestyle. Blacks are still treated just about as cruelly as ever. Maybe they are not being sold or whipped, but racism remains rampant and White people resent that they have to give up their sense of entitlement.

It has been a while since I finished this book so I don’t remember too much about the actual plot other than that our protagonist, Colonel Miltiades Vaiden, is worried about his future since his family’s plantation has fallen on tough times after the Civil War ended and his slaves were freed. A lot of the book revolves around the Colonel’s scheming ways, trying to sell his cotton, then buying the town store. In the beginning of the story, Colonel Milt is married to Ponny, who is described as a morbidly obese woman who he despises (he only wanted her because he thought she was rich which turned out not to be true). Eventually Ponny dies which leaves the Colonel to woo Sydna Crowninshield, the daughter of the woman he once loved and wanted to marry, but who jilted him. Needless to say the age difference is ridiculous.

Meanwhile, Gracie Vaiden, a former slave of the Vaidens who is described as a “Quadroon” ¬†or quarter-black, hopes in vain for the chance to move to the North with her son Toussaint. Since he is so light-skinned he can pass for a young white man she wants him to marry a white woman who does not know about his past. In the course of the book we find out that not only is Gracie Miltiades’ half-sister (his father obviously raped/slept with slave women), Toussaint is Miltiades’ son (the Colonel kept up the family tradition), but the Colonel has no idea. While he is usually pretty sharp when it comes to business dealings, when it comes to relationships and people he is clearly rather on the dense side.

Sadly, things don’t turn out well for Gracie and Toussaint. He decides to marry Lucy, a local black woman, against his mother’s wishes. Lucy and Toussaint want to stay in the South and prove to the world that black folks can have a good life and succeed with honest hard work. And, not unexpectedly, black folks with attitude are wont to run into problems in this environment.

What made this book so difficult to read were the frank and brutal racist thoughts and dialogues that permeate it. By the end I was exhausted! While Stribling does not come right out to condemn racism, it is clear that his White characters are for the most part either despicable or extremely shallow (and sometimes, both). Black folks are mostly treated sympathetically.¬†Overall a good read though. I did cry at the end, so that’s a plus in my world, but I won’t read it again ever.

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