1933: The Store by T. S. Stribling


Plot Summary:

On a tapestry even richer in color and wider in scope than The Forge, Mr. Stribling tells the history of Miltiades Vaiden and his attempt to restore to the somnolent backwash of Southern life in the ‘90’s something of the spaciousness of the days before the Civil War.

Blacks and whites, crooks, storekeepers, politicians, Mr. Stribling has knit together in this graphic social history of the reconstructed South.

My Thoughts:

The Store is the second book in a trilogy chronicling the life of the Vaiden family from the Civil War into the beginning of the Great Depression. Having not read the first novel in the trilogy, The Forge, I can say that The Store still works well as a standalone novel and does not rely on events from the earlier novel without providing enough context for the reader to still understand the characters’ history and motivation in this novel. At the same time, there is not any point in the novel when it feels like the author is deliberately rehashing some plot point or history for the sake of the uninformed reader.

The Store follows Miltiades Vaiden in the late 1880s when the Civil War was still heavy on the minds of people in the South. But what makes the novel so fascinating is that it does not rely on Miltiades for it’s sole insight into the region and time. Stribling ventures through perspectives in the novel, exploring the feelings, ideas, and motivations of a variety of characters of various ages, races, genders, and social classes. He provides a detailed and striking look at the lives of the freed slaves and their families in the decades following the Civil War, while also exploring a variety of other characters. Stribling uses contrasts and dichotomies in these characters to provide several sides to the same issues. Two of the main characters, Miltiades and Gracie, were once owner and slave, and now struggle to redefine what their relationship is in the aftermath of the Civil War, and where their loyalties lie. Miltiades’ nephew Jerry is going to college, and often believes inherently whatever he has just read, whether it be atheist, spiritual, or mystical. He is contrasted with a boarder in his family’s house who dropped out of college but is studying law on his own, in hopes of passing the bar exam, and the dynamic between foolish college student and intelligent dropout is often played for comic relief. The attitudes of poor white tenants sharing the same plantation as black tenants are not only a source of complexity, but also of conflict. It is this complexity that makes the novel so compelling, but it is also what gives it some of its flaws.

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The 1933 Novel Decision

In a short letter to the Pulitzer Prize Committee, the jurors recommended T. S. Stribling’s The Store for the prize. After asking for clarification, the jurors sent another letter, stating that they had selected The Store “chiefly because of its sustained interest, and because of the convincing and comprehensive picture it presents of life in an inland Southern community during the middle eighties of the last century.” The letter also listed four other novels that were considered for the prize: Sons of the Martian, God’s Angry Man, The Pilot Comes Aboard, and To Make My Bread. The Pulitzer Prize Committee went on to follow the jury’s recommendation and selected The Store for the Pulitzer. Hohenburg writes about winning author, “Although Stribling is little read today, he was respected in his time as a novelist who attempted to grapple with the realities of life in the South.”

Currently reading: Lamb in His Bosom by Caroline Miller