In November I reviewed Mississippi Trial, 1955 and analyzed a scene using questions that Rebecca Petruck posed to me. In this post I'm sharing an excerpt from another award winning book about the Jim Crow period, Guardian by Julius Lester. This time I'm analyzing it using questions from James Scott Bell's book, Plot and Structure.
A short but immensely powerful book, Guardian portrays a lynching as seen from the viewpoint of several characters most intimately effected by the man's murder. Here are seven of these characters:
Ansel Anderson- a 14-year-old white boy living in a small town in the south in 1946.
Bert Anderson- Ansel's father who operates Anderson General Store and helped Big Willie get his job.
Maureen Anderson- Ansel's mother.
Little Willie Benton- Ansel's black fishing buddy who works with Ansel at the General Store.
Big Willie Benton- WWII vet suffering from (undiagnosed PTSD), Little Willie's father. He does odd jobs at Mary Susan's father's church.
Mary Susan Dennis- the girl Ansel likes.
Zach Davis- Ansel's antagonist and town bully. Great-Grandson of the man who founded the town of Davis, son of the man who owns the largest plantation in the town as well as the store where Ansel's father works and the church where Mary Susan's father is the preacher.
Through these multitude of lenses, yet told from the narrator's present tense viewpoint, Mr. Lester has interwoven a story full of deep prejudice and misunderstanding. It is an unconventional style which works well for this topic. The reader intimately sees each character's motivations, fears, and beliefs and feels his or her emotions.
James Scott Bell writes: "A novel usually revolves around a few big scenes. These act like guideposts as the novelist moves from one to the other up through the climax." (p.127) The scene you are about to read happens three-quarters of the way into the book and is one of the big scenes in Guardian. Bert and Ansel have just left their store.
As father and son cross the street to the car, they see Big Willie hurrying out the front door of the church. He looks quickly to his right and left, and seeing Bert and Ansel, he runs to them.
"Mistah Bert, suh! I'm glad it's you. Yes, suh!" Willie is a tall and rather ungainly young man. His face looks as if it absorbed every death he witnessed, those he was agent of and those he was not. He is wearing a khaki military shirt with a private's stripe on the sleeve. But the shirt is dirty and torn, as if he has not taken it off since his discharge.
"Wasn't me, Mistah Bert. No, suh! I didn't have nothing to do with it, but I know I'm gon' get blamed for it. Something like this happen, nigger gets blamed every time. Yes, suh. Sho' do. But I ain't done it."
"What are you talking about, Willie?"
Willie points toward the church. "I seen him. I seen him just as sho' as I'm seeing you and Mistah Ansel. Yes, such. The young Mistah Zeph."
Bert hurries to the church and goes inside. In the dim light at the front, he sees and does not want to believe what he sees.
"Ansel! Go outside!"
Instead of doing what his father tells him, Ansel says, "Papa? What's he doing?"
Zeph Davis the Third turns at the sounds of the voices. In his right hand is a knife. It is slick with blood. On the floor in front of the alter lies a body, the skirt raised to reveal her nakedness.
Ansel does not wait for an answer from his father, who is still trying to understand what he is seeing. Ansel screams, "Mary Susan! Mary Susan!" and runs to the front of the church. He stops and stares at her nakedness. Then, realizing what he is doing, he pulls down the skirt to cover her.
In doing so, he sees a ripped blouse and severed bra. The exposed breasts are red and slick with blood.
He wants to stare, but feels that he shouldn't, that Mary Susan would not want him to.
He takes the blood-soaked blouse and pulls both sides over her bared breasts, careful not to touch them.
Zeph looks rapidly from Ansel to Bert, back and forth, back and forth, breathing heavily, not knowing what to do, what to say.
Then he sees Big Willie in the shadows at the back of the church.
"He did it!" Zeph hours, pointing at Big Willie. "He did it!"
"Mistah Bert? Suh, look at me. Ain't no blood nowhere on me. Look at him. He covered with blood, her blood."
"You know niggers, Bert!" Zeph breaks in. "They do all kinds of stuff with roots. That nigger probably got a mojo that can take blood off his hands."
"I seen him, Mistah Bert. I seen him. I was up in the balcony. I likes to sit up there when no one's around. It's real peaceful.
"That's where I was when the preacher's girl, Miz Mary, come in. I wanted to leave right then 'cause I knowed it wouldn't look good if I was alone in the same place with a white woman. But wasn't no way I could get out without her hearing. Seeing' me, she might get the wrong idea and start screaming. So I just stayed still.
"She went to the altar and knelt down to pray. I wondered what could be weighing so heaving on the heart of someone as young as she was. If she'd been a nigger gal, I could understand. Us niggers need all the prayer we can get. Yes, suh.
"Miz Mary hadn't been there long when I heard the door of the church open and he come in. I thought maybe the two of them had decided to meet up together at the church, but when she turned around to see who it was had come in and seen it was him she say, 'What do you want? You get on outta here and leave me alone. I'm praying.'
"He don't pay no mind to what she say. He go up to her and grab her try to kiss her. She push him away. She say, 'Get away from me or I'll kick you so hard you won't be able to move for a month.'
"That's when he whipped out his knife and before she could do anything, he was on her, stabbing her over and over. Then I seen him raise up her skirt, and I didn't want to see no more. Mistah Zeph was so caught up in what he was doing that he didn't see me, and I hurried out and that's when I seen you and your boy. That's the God's truth, Mistah Bert. You believe me, don't you? You'll tell the white folks it wasn't me. Won't you Mistah Berth?"
"Who you going to belive, Bert? A nigger or a white man?"
Zeph notices that Bert is hesitating, that Bert is thinking about what the right thing to do is, and Zeph drops the knife on the floor next to Mary Susan's body, runs up the aisle and out of the church.
"Rape! Rape! Pastor's daughter been raped by a nigger!" Zeph is running and yelling at the same time. Over and over he shouts and the only words that are clear are "rape" and "nigger." pp. 71-75.
Mr. Bell asks:
Was this an action scene? No question. This scene demonstrates high intensity with "tremendous conflict, important emotions, sharp dialogue, and inner turmoil." (Bell, p.128)
Identify the places where you learn about the character's objective in the scene and the conflict:
- Big Willie's speech when he meets Ansel and Bert show how he wants his name cleared. That is repeated at the close of the scene bookending his desperation. Conflict roars to life through Zeph's false accusation.
- Entering the church, Ansel wants to see what has disturbed his father. His internal conflict in seeing Mary Susan is demonstrated in his actions.
- Zeph's anger at being rebuffed again (this is not the first time Mary Susan rejects him) leads to his objective: revenge. His conflict is visible in his brief hesitation after his sociopathic behavior.
- Bert wants not to see what is plain before his eyes. Afterwards, he also hesitates, showing his internal conflict.
Zeph leaves the church and "Over and over he shouts and the only words that are clear are 'rape' and 'nigger.' The reader knows that this certainly means disaster for Big Willie and sets up the scenes which, like soldiers falling in battle, will surely follow.
Do you want to read on?
I'm going to leave this question up to you. Even though you have a strong sense of what's going to happen next, are you pulled into the next scene? Why or why not?
Jim Bell writes, "...you need to end scenes with a prompt, something to make readers turn the page...Don't ever let your scenes fizzle out, ending on a boring note." (p. 124).
It seems to me, that Julius Lester has done just that.
On next week's blog, Mr. Lester shares some personal insights into writing Guardian.
Scene Response Sheet
High Temperature Plotting Sheet