I’ve always had admiration for farmers who have one of the hardest jobs of all—to attempt to make the earth bend to their will. A farmer is entirely at the mercy of God and the elements. A bad crop, storm, flood, pestilence, injuries, or drought can cost him everything he has. Or, he can be a sharecropper (quarter-yield) or share tenant (half-yield) on that farmer’s land and suffer the same fate.
Such was the case for Henry McAllan’s family. Henry was an engineer who decided to buy a farm—what he had always wanted. He bought out the previous owner who had four other tenant farmers on his land. Henry was the kind of white man who loved the land as if it were his mistress which his wife, Laura, observed. Henry’s father Pappy and brother Jamie hated the land and only loved the alcohol, tobacco, food, etc. that any profit could bring them.
The story opens with Pappy having been murdered and his two sons Henry and Jamie are burying him in someone’s else’s old grave in the rain and mud. Whenever it rained there, the creek would rise, and they’d be stranded for days. That made me read on to find out why Pappy was murdered.
Henry paid one of the townspeople $100 on a hand shake to rent a nice house for his wife, children, and Pappy. When they arrived in 1940’s Mississippi, they found that the house was sold to someone else, and the seller was nowhere to be found. So, they all had to live in the work shack on the land with no running water or electricity and a leaky roof with a shed on the side. So, the gentle Laura, who was used to living better, had to do everything in that shack or in the barn with Pappy and the kids. Laura and the kids were in for a hard life. Pappy ruled over Laura and the kids as if he owned everything instead of his son, Henry.
In the middle of the harvest, Henry’s brother Jamie returned from the war after being a bomber pilot. Henry, Laura, and the children loved the prodigal son though he drank heavily.
Hap and Florence’s black family was one of the share tenants who had to produce crops as part of the agreement. Things were mostly all right if you can judge how black people were treated. For example, black people could not sit on the seat next to a white person but had to ride in the back of a truck at the mercy of the elements. They couldn’t walk through the front door of the town grocery store but had to come in and leave by the back door. Blacks had to stay to themselves and couldn’t be seen to live better than whites. And, the medical care for blacks was atrocious.
Hap and Florence had a son, Ronzel, who came home after being a tank commander in the military. When he returned home, he felt worse than a second-class citizen after being a war hero. This was what Jamie and Ronzel had in common—the horrors of war that they tried to drink away together, which was forbidden in this culture.
Read Hillary Jordan’s book to see what leads up to Pappy’s death. It is an intense well-told story of cultures and sacrifices.
© 2008 Hillary Jordan
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2009
Written by Rosa L. Griffin