1933: The Store by T. S. Stribling

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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.

By moving between characters and seeking out the wide variety of life in a small town in the South, Stribling captures a sense of reality in the interactions and conflicts between peoples. There is something messy about the way things both work out and fall apart that never feels contrived in the novel. The reader steps into a very real town and sees several different sides of the same story simultaneously. What Stribling does best is to show that every success and tragedy is both created and interpreted differently by different people.

But this complexity is also one of the faults I found in the novel. Because the important events of the novel are based on many smaller actions from so a vast cast of characters, Stribling is constantly jumping back and forth in time to see what different characters are thinking and doing in response to events. He will often introduce some complex action or conflict to generate interest, only to jump back several days in the timeline and explain how it all came to happen, and this back and forth narrative persists throughout the novel.

Where I had most issue was an instance about halfway through the novel, when Stribling jumps back three days to explain the extenuating circumstances leading up to a conflict, but neglects to move the reader back to the present before continuing the story. He ends up creating a sort of timeline paradox, in which effects occur before causes, and the whole order of events becomes jumbled up for several pages. While this was a small error, it was one that forced me out of the flow of the novel and made me reread several pages to see if I was the one reading in error, or if my confusion about the timeline was justified. Which, in light of the novel as a whole, is a relatively minor problem, and one that does not take away from the insightful and skillful intricacy with which Stribling creates and populates the town of Florence.

Stribling’s complex view of life in the South at the end of the 19th century is incredibly in depth and informative. He does not pull any punches to make his characters look good, but exposes their flaws, and through them, the flaws he saw in the South, as well as all the successes and accomplishments. It is a bittersweet sort of story that manages to be both satisfying and troubling, and provides a look at the South from that time period that is difficult to find elsewhere.

Favorite passage:

“Only children conceived and reared in the midst of great social upheaval ever truly record it. I was twenty-eight when the war came up. It could do nothing to me except kill me, but you were dreaming under your mother’s heart when Yankee troops ransacked your grandfather’s home…”

“I couldn’t remember that,” said Sydna in a low tone.

“No, but you are made up of that romance and tragedy. It shocks and emotions are yours. I have thought that every era of history is written not on books by withered scribes but upon the hearts and souls of the children of that generation. All historians can do is to make a few passing footnotes to explain why your eyes are pensive and your lips wistful.”

Why you should read it:

The variegation of the characters, and the focus on their motivations and emotions is fantastic in its own right, but the astute description of the attitudes and actions occurring in the South in the aftermath of the Civil War makes this novel incredibly fascinating.

Currently reading: Lamb in His Bosom by Caroline Miller

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