Although the narrative and descriptive essays are often given as separate assignments in composition courses, they are combined in this first section so that teachers can present expressive writing and still reserve time for the many forms of informative and argumentative writing. This choice is tricky because it confirms the folk wisdom about expressive writing and rhetorical difficulty. According to custom, students can write narratives first because they are already familiar with storytelling and can organize a personal experience according to simple chronology. Similarly, students can write descriptive essays early because they can use their senses to discover details that can then be arranged according to spatial patterns.
Teachers can find considerable support for such conventional wisdom in their students’ writing, which often seems more fluent when it focuses on personal narrative or describes something familiar. But teachers are also aware that narration is not restricted to expressive writing—historical narratives are informative and persuasive—and that the best personal narratives require the sophisticated use of pacing and point of view. Similarly, they know that description includes technical descriptions that are almost exclusively informative and that the most effective personal descriptions depend on the deft selection of evocative and telling details.
Combining the two strategies into one assignment has an internal logic. Most narratives (telling what happened) are fleshed out by description (showing what something looked and felt like). And most descriptions are propelled by a strong narrative line. You may want to examine these propositions by discussing the way the two methods are presented in the section introduction and illustrated by the sample paragraph. Like the lesson in Kingston’s paragraph, events occur in time and space. Thus, writers must identify the central conflict in their essay, arrange the events in a sequence, and select those details that render a vivid picture of the events as they unfold. Most important, writers need to identify their purpose in re-creating the story for an audience. Such a discussion should help your students understand how strategies such as plot, pace, and point of view shape and sharpen the point of a narrative and descriptive essay.
The five essays in this section illustrate these strategies in action. Maya Angelou opens her essay by speculating about the purposes of education in the South and then selects an example from her own life to illustrate the ironies in her speculation. George Orwell’s essay proposes a theory about real impulses of imperialism and then illustrates that theory with a dramatic revelation of his role in shooting an elephant. Both essays establish narration and description as means of proof and reveal how writers use pacing to build anticipation and manipulate point of view.
Doris Kearns Goodwin’s remembrance about keeping a baseball score book is an analytical narrative similar to Angelou’s and Orwell’s in intent but much more nostalgic in tone. The story in her essay is summarized within another story; she is telling a story about the stories she told her father when she was a child.
Judith Ortiz Cofer uses narration to introduce and exemplify the points she is making in a larger analysis of stereotypes of Puerto Rican women. The stories in her text illustrate the kinds of prejudices she has faced as a Latina.
Andre Dubus’s essay “Digging” is an elegiac text mourning both the loss of his right leg in an automobile accident (although he doesn’t tell readers that) and the loss of his father. He writes with careful attention to description so that his readers can learn the same lessons from his experience that he did.
Alice Adams’s story “Truth or Consequences” presents the essence of narration and description—an adult recounting a specific yet universal childhood experience. A frame story that mixes details of the past and present, it subtly embodies themes opposing stereotyping that are common among all of the readings in this section of the text.
The writing assignments that conclude this section ask students to experiment with these strategies in their own essays. As students plan their first drafts, you should encourage them to see the relationship between two lines of action: (1) the events as they happened in real time and space, and (2) the events as they might be arranged and presented in an expressive way. Ask them to consider how certain events in their essays will have to be telescoped or expanded to dramatize the narrator’s conflict or point of view. Once they have plotted the story line, they will be ready to write.
Each writing assignment sends students back to one of the essays for advice, evidence, and stimulation. For example, assignment 2 suggests that students explore a personal experience in which they had to perform an unpleasant deed (Orwell), assignment 3 asks students to chronicle their own experiences with storytelling (Goodwin), assignment 4 asks students to parallel surrounding and familial cultural events (Cofer), and assignment 6 invites students to offer their own proof of the adage “seeing is believing” (Angelou, Dubus, Adams).
MAYA ANGELOU “My Name Is Margaret”
The purpose of Maya Angelou’s autobiographical novel I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings—to promote understanding between people of all races—is evident in the excerpted episode “My Name Is Margaret.” Angelou’s essay compares the “finishing school” experiences of “white girls shown in magazines” and black “girls in small Southern towns,” educations whose methods are entirely different but whose ends are equally “irrelevant.” The narrator’s example of Edna Lomax, who spends her wages on tatting thread but can’t complete the handiwork because her fingers are rough from picking cotton, introduces the idea that projecting the dominant culture’s values on an oppressed class is often as pathetic as it is ironic. This thesis is illustrated by the writer’s own experience with an employer who was preoccupied with white, southern, aristocratic social graces. The narrator goes to work in the kitchen of Mrs. Cullinan, a gentlewoman from Virginia, in a house whose “exactness . . . was inhuman.” Every dish had a specific purpose and a specific place. Mrs. Cullinan’s kitchen help was schooled in protocol, learning the difference between salad, bread, and dessert plates. They also suffered the indignity of having their names changed, shortened and Anglicized, to conform with Mrs. Cullinan’s idealized version of gentility.
The “white woman from Texas, who would quickly describe herself as a liberal,” and whose remark occasions this memoir, is, perhaps, part of the same aristocracy as Mrs. Cullinan; her declaration that the narrator was a “debutante” shows insensitivity similar to Mrs. Cullinan’s. The essay is especially concerned with ethnocentric behavior that is unintentional or even unrecognized by whites, and, although Angelou’s book remains popular with white and black readers, this essay demonstrates that she was conscious of a white audience. Her explanation of what it means to be “called out of name” is probably offered for white readers, since she prefaces it by saying that “every person [she] knew” had strong feelings about such a practice. Angelou also describes a popular black stereotype of whites, writing “whitefolks were so strange” because they “stuck together” more than blacks. In addition to increasing white readers’ awareness of black culture, these insights also help justify Margaret’s actions in the story.
The story’s conflict between Mrs. Cullinan and the narrator builds slowly and ends quickly, as anger usually does. The background of the story is drawn out by vivid details, including lists of tasks young black women usually learned at home and the many items of glassware and kitchen utensils in Mrs. Cullinan’s kitchen; even the attention given to the wrinkles on Mrs. Cullinan’s face creates a relaxed pace. When Margaret discovers that Mr. Cullinan has two illegitimate, mulatto daughters, she pities her childless mistress and imagines herself acting in the capacity of Mrs. Cullinan’s own child.
Even after the first discussion of her name, when the narrator discovers that Mrs. Cullinan can’t “even pronounce [Marguerita] correctly,” and the speckled-faced woman suggests shortening “Margaret” to “Mary,” the young narrator still sees her employer in terms of “her loneliness and pain” and plans to make Mrs. Cullinan the heroine of a “tragic ballad.” Her anger is aroused when her mistress begins to call her “Mary.” The story’s conflict is firmly established by the narrator’s response to Mrs. Cullinan’s thoughtlessness in shortening her and Glory’s names: “Imagine letting some white woman rename you for her convenience.” Glory, however, accepts without question Mrs. Cullinan’s audacity. Glory, after all, is descended from the Cullinan’s slaves and remains more or less in that role. Although she does not object to her new name, Glory recalls: “My name used to be Hallelujah. That’s what Ma named me. . . .”
In taking her servant’s name, Mrs. Cullinan took a very personal possession, one transmitted from mother to daughter. It is particularly fitting, then, that Bailey instructs the narrator to break the fish-shaped casserole and the green glass coffee cups that had belonged to Mrs. Cullinan’s mother back in Virginia. When she breaks the dishes, the conflict is resolved. In rejecting the narrator as a member of her household, Mrs. Cullinan symbolically returns her name, saying, “Her name’s Margaret, goddamn it, her name’s Margaret.”
The narrator’s anger is apparently abated, for as Angelou remembers it, looking back on the episode from adulthood, she could not tell the whole story to Bailey without being reduced to uncontrollable laughter. Ironically, as Angelou’s name on the book indicates, she eventually changed her first name herself.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN “Keeping the Scorebook”
Doris Kearns Goodwin describes and demonstrates that knowledge is power in storytelling. Her essay, “Keeping the Scorebook,” reveals how her expertise as a baseball aficionado captivated her father each summer evening of her childhood as she recapitulated the day’s Dodgers game for him, and her retelling of that era in baseball and personal history effectively holds the attention of her readers as well. Goodwin explains that her “nightly recounting of the Dodgers’ progress” served as her “first lessons in the narrative art.” She began to realize that, after his long day at work as a bank examiner, her father required a good story to hold his attention, and she resolved to supply it in order to win his much-prized attention and often to earn herself a later bedtime as well.
Although Goodwin’s story is ostensibly about how she learned to keep baseball statistics, right down to “whether a strikeout was called or swinging, whether a double play was around the horn, [and] whether the single that won the game was hit to left or right,” her primary purpose is to tell the story of her relationship with her father. Their nightly ritual, in which she recounted the “game he had missed,” was a labor of love for father and daughter. Goodwin explains that she was motivated, not purely by her enjoyment of baseball, but also by the quest for her “father’s undivided attention, the sign of his love.” As she learned to record every nuance of each inning, the Brooklyn team became, for her father and herself, “our Dodgers.” Goodwin, writing the story as an adult, realizes “a lasting bond [was] forged among my father, baseball, and me.”
There are two stories in Goodwin’s narrative, each with its own audience: the nightly narratives she created for her father, and the summary of those that she presents for her readers. The stories about baseball were crafted for her father alone, but the story about how baseball brought her closer to her father reaches a much wider audience. For her father, she concentrated on pacing and chronology. She says that she eventually learned to tell the story of each game “one batter at a time, inning by inning, without divulging the outcome”; she could “keep the suspense . . . alive” and maintain her father’s attention “until the very last pitch.” Her little red score book, with its comprehensive account of each play, provided details that made the game vivid for her initial audience. If he asked, she could quickly supply Roy Campanella’s accumulated hits, and provide the statistics her father used to compute Carl Erskine’s earned run average for the season.
Readers of Goodwin’s book, Wait Till Next Year, the story of her lifelong interest in baseball, require different elements of narration than her father to maintain their interest, because many of them are not contemporaneous with the events in the book. Goodwin recreates the excitement she and her father experienced as fans of the 1949 Dodgers, recounting how she used to pace the floor, bargaining with destiny to “make [her] bed every day for a week,” if a designated Dodger could garner a hit. She reveals that occasionally a game’s action became too stressful for her to follow it, and she had to ask her mother to step in as scorekeeper while she nervously completed the circuit around her block, running figurative bases as she hoped her heroes would. For younger readers, or those who (imagine this!) were not ardent baseball fans during the “days before players were free agents,” Goodwin explains that Red Barber was the Dodgers’ amiable announcer, and she supplies the names of Dodger greats Casey Stengel, Zack Wheat, Jimmy Johnston, Babe Herman, Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Billy Cox, Gene Hermanski, Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, and others.
At first, Goodwin’s father must have listened to his loquacious offspring as a fatherly sacrifice. She admits that “it never crossed [her] mind to wonder if . . . he might find [her] lengthy account the least bit tedious.” She discovered that she could tell her father “a story that seemed to last almost as long as the game itself.” Eventually, however, she learned to withhold the game’s final score, and imitate “the great Red Barber himself,” whispering the game’s dicey details and punctuating its triumphs by allowing her “voice to swell” and even “jump[ing] from the couch” to illustrate an exciting maneuver.
The grown-up Goodwin and her readers realize that it was the narrator’s father who was the master storyteller of the house. Michael Kearns’s tales involve extraordinary events from baseball history, (not merely the play-by-play of every run-of-the-mill contest): the first night that lights illuminated Ebbets Field, the time a Babe Ruth double resulted in three men vying for third base, and the infield homer hit by Casey Stengel at the inaugural game at Ebbets Field. We realize that he is also an ideal audience member, giving his full attention to his daughter’s stories, in spite of having read them for himself from the box scores reported in the newspapers earlier each day.
JUDITH ORTIZ COFER “The Myth of the Latin Woman”
Cofer, who is an accomplished poet and novelist, says that in her travels around the United States to give readings, she tries through modeling and storytelling to change the negative stereotyping of Latin American women that prevails in our culture. This chapter from her book The Latin Deli extends that crusade into print. She demonstrates the confusion that results when the members of one culture judge those of another by their own idiosyncratic standards. Her example about Hispanic schoolgirls trying to dress for “Career Day” shows how unreasonable it is to ask people of color to conform to white American values. Her attempts to act British in London convince her that “the Island” travels with those who leave Puerto Rico; one should not attempt to abandon her own identity.
Cofer’s purpose is to prove that cultural stereotypes are damaging and wrong. She argues that “some people” who don’t bother to look beyond one’s “Hispanic appearance” misjudge the dress, demeanor, and potential of Latinas. Acknowledging her own good fortune and the providence of her parents who gave her a good education and “a stronger footing in the mainstream culture,” Cofer speaks for her many Hispanic “campañeras” who lack the social standing or language skills to speak for themselves. To subtly reinforce her thesis, she paints unstereotypical portraits such as those of the “Chinese priest” who performed a Spanish mass in New Jersey, the female Italian-American business-school student, and the Chicana Ph.D. student. Her essay ends with a quotation from one of her own poems about “Latin women [who] pray in Spanish to an Anglo God/with a Jewish heritage. . . .”
Writing specifically for “those who should know better” but still succumb to the urge to “put others ‘in their place,’” Cofer recounts embarrassments she has suffered as the object of cultural stereotyping. She wants to curb the behavior of people like the patronizing man who sang to her on a British bus, the obnoxious one singing in a “classy metropolitan hotel,” the boy who expected her to “mature early,” and the woman at a poetry reading who mistook the Latina poet for a waitress. Cofer tries to correct stereotypes about Latin American women by educating her audience. It is “culture clash” that causes her Italian-American friend to observe that Puerto Rican girls’ jewelry looks as if they are “wearing ‘everything at once.’” Cofer describes the tropical heat, colorful environment, and strict Catholic morality that pervade Puerto Rico as a way of explaining styles of dress common to Latinas.
Cofer’s observation that what is called a “party” in the United States is really just “a marathon conversation in hushed tones” draws a sharp contrast between herself and her audience. Assuming that her readers have not visited Puerto Rico, she describes the piropos, or provocative poems that young men recite impromptu to women on the streets of the island. Their outrageous but never obscene poems contrast sharply with the “dirty song” invented by the man in a tuxedo who embarrasses Cofer and her colleague in their hotel. This book chapter is an answer to that man’s daughter, who expected the women to “laugh along” with her father’s inappropriate performance.
Narratives exemplify and strengthen every point in Cofer’s arguments against stereotyping Latin American women. The story of the young man who regaled Cofer with “an Irish tenor’s rendition of ‘María’ from West Side Story” introduces the essay’s theme. Recounting how she “agonized” about what to wear to school on “Career Day” proves that “it is custom . . . not chromosomes” that prompt Puerto Rican girls to opt for “tight skirts and jingling bracelets.” Cofer’s indignation at the behavior of the boy who escorted her to her first formal dance underscores the fact that Latinas are not promiscuous, as the young man thought. The behavior of the middle-aged man who delights his companions by taunting Cofer as “Evita” sharply demonstrates that race does not automatically determine one’s social class, even though the man would not similarly objectify a “white woman.” The narrative about the woman at the poetry reading who unwittingly orders a cup of coffee from the poet she has come to hear underscores Cofer’s point that Latinas are not simply “menials,” those relegated to jobs as domestics. Cofer’s best strategy, however, is an ethical one. She is a Latin-American woman who defies stereotypes by speaking out against them.
ANDRE DUBUS “Digging”
It is impossible for the middle-aged Andre Dubus to write now to his father, who lay on his deathbed when Dubus was still a Marine captain, so the writer eulogizes him with this tribute that describes his father’s role in helping him achieve manhood. Extrinsically, the narrator of this book chapter and his father had little in common. Introduced as “my ruddy, broad-chested father,” who had “sired a sensitive boy,” the father hands his son over to a construction foreman with the command that he “make a man of him.” The boy nearly fails as a manual laborer: his back and palms burn; he sees black spots before his eyes, vomits his breakfast, and sleeps through his lunch hour. That afternoon, his father benevolently appears above the trench where he is digging. The narrator thinks his father has come to take him home, where he will quietly accept his son’s inadequacy; instead, his father buys him a sandwich and a pith helmet and takes him back to the job. A coworker predicts, “You going to be all right now” when the helmeted boy returns, and the author admits that he was, although he claims he still doesn’t know why. The calm assurance of the narrator’s father seems to have helped the narrator to persevere as much as the pith helmet did.
In spite of his meek appearance, which “[drew] bullies to [him],” the boy admits to “a dual life” in which to others he often appears distracted but is mentally “riding a horse and shooting bad men.” When his father suggests that it is time for him to get a job, Dubus cannot tell him that he does not want to work. He won’t say that he doesn’t want to wear the pith helmet that his father chooses for him. He can’t tell his mother and sister how ruined and despondent he feels after his first day on the job. In truth, the narrator did want someone to make a man of him. Prior to enduring his summer of harsh physical labor, he feels “ashamed” and “incompetent” and remarks that he “did not believe [he] was as good at being a boy as other boys were.” He says that he has written this chapter because he knows “It is time to thank my father for wanting me to work and telling me I had to work and getting the job for me and buying me lunch and a pith helmet . . . .”
The tone of Dubus’s chapter is nostalgic. He writes for other men his age who might recall a similar turning point in their own lives, and to young adult men who are or soon will be facing such a moment of truth themselves. Most of his readers would not relish the opportunity to dig a ditch with a pickax and a shovel any more than Dubus did at sixteen. The revelations that he was “shy” and “lived a life no one could see” pique his readers’ interest. Not only is it time for Dubus to thank his father, but it is also time for him to tell what he would not reveal to his family or his coworkers during that difficult summer. His reader is his willing listener.
Many of Dubus’s readers will heavily identify with his respectfully tacit conflicts with his talkative and manly father, especially where matters of race are concerned. The boy notices immediately that he has been assigned to work with black men, and he responds to their cheerful greetings in kind. At lunchtime on his first day on the job, he chooses to sit under a tree with his fellow black workers rather than retreat with the white workers to “another shaded place.” He says of his fellow trench-diggers that he “felt that we were friends” and “comrades,” a transport that eventually extends to “all the black men at work.” There is a hint of guilt in his revelation that at the end of the day, his coworkers “went to the colored section of town” while he went home to cocktail hour in a genteel home “where vases held flowers, and things were clean, and [the family’s] manners were good.” Dubus also expresses outrage that the black laborers were paid an “unjust” wage. The narrator’s father refers to his son’s compatriots as “nigras,” an archaic usage that should be addressed in class discussion. It is as much an outdated relic as the drugstore lunch counter that the father visits with his son or the salt tablets kept by the water cooler at the job site in the outmoded belief that taking salt would help restore the electrolytes lost to excessive perspiration.
The pace of this narration draws readers in and helps them empathize with the boy’s predicament. The long opening description of the father who worked his way up as a civil engineer, read literate magazines, and gave up hunting for golf is part of the text’s elegiac tone. It also shows that his actions on the day of his son’s first job were probably prudent and loving. Describing the first morning of the job itself takes up half of the chapter. Readers are taken down into the three-foot trench in the glare of the hot sun. They are invited to feel the weight of the pickax in their backs, legs, arms, and shoulders until they empathize with the narrator’s nausea and despair.
Most readers would want, as the boy does, to be taken home and cared for by a mother after the first morning’s work. Dubus helps his audience learn the same lesson he did from the incident. His description of what would have happened on that fateful day if his father had surrendered and had taken him home helps readers appreciate what a defining moment it was when his father sent him back to work. In the end, it was the narrator’s father, not the job foreman, who made a man of him.
GEORGE ORWELL “Shooting an Elephant”
In addition to presenting a suspenseful story, Orwell’s classic essay “Shooting an Elephant” offers political commentary whose purpose is to prove the ironic thesis that imperialistic forces are, ultimately, controlled by the peoples they oppress. Orwell’s relationship to the “natives” in the story is analogous, he maintains, to Great Britain’s role in Burma. It is “those two thousand Burmans” who followed the narrator who made him shoot. They wanted a spectacle; they expected it. The police officer had as much as promised to kill the elephant, he realized, when he sent an orderly to borrow an elephant rifle. In addition, he could not let the crowd laugh as he was trampled by the elephant, and since he was afraid to do the honorable thing (to go within “twenty-five yards of the elephant and test his behavior”), he believed he had no choice other than to shoot, especially since showing fear in front of the Burmans would discredit all white men in the East. Therefore, the narrator admits that he killed the elephant “solely to avoid looking a fool.” The essay suggests that greater stakes than elephants are lost when a government believes it knows what is best for remote subjects. Orwell says that “when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.”
Orwell wrote this essay in 1936 for an “antifascist” periodical called New Writing whose readers probably agreed with the author that imperialism was ideologically corrupt. In fact, many readers might have mistrusted Orwell because of his service in the Indian imperial police, executing British rule in Burma; therefore, he is eager to quell any such misgivings. He admits
in his second paragraph that “I had already made up my mind that imperialism was an evil thing. . . .”
Writing in the first person point of view, Orwell assures the audience that he is a reasonable, open-minded, honorable character. His explanation of why he shot the elephant is laced with statements such as “I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not shoot him,” “I did not in the least want to shoot him,” and “But I did not want to shoot the elephant.” Orwell seems aware of his readers’ political consciences, expecting them to side with the Indian elephant owner, who believed the beast should not have been shot. Orwell, in fact, agrees and counts himself lucky that the “coolie” was killed—making him, if not morally right, at least legally correct.
Because the audience for this essay is mostly English, the crowd of Burmans who press the issue is compared with an English crowd. Also, most of the story’s readers have no experience with elephants or Eastern culture; therefore Orwell outlines the usual procedure for handling an elephant whose attack of “must” is due and explains that his “old .44 Winchester” is much too small to kill an elephant, but that an elephant gun aimed at the animal’s ear will do the trick.
Like the crowd that follows the police officer on his fateful elephant hunt, readers of the essay believe, almost from the start of the expedition, that he will shoot the animal. Clues lead Orwell to the elephant (destroyed hut, killed cow, devoured fruit stalls, damaged rubbish van, and slaughtered man), and Orwell’s arguments lead his readers to the conclusion that the elephant must be shot. Details develop the tension in the essay. The description of the dead coolie, partially skinned, dragged through mud, and left dead in a crucified position, with his “teeth bared and grinning with an expression of unendurable agony,” lends a grim immediacy to the problem. In contrast, the elephant, when he is found, completes a pastoral scene. Orwell describes the giant animal with subjective detail, calling him “grandmotherly” as he feeds on grass just eight yards from the road where the crowd gathers.
The death of the elephant is majestic compared to the coolie’s demise. At first shot, he does not drop, and when he finally does fall, he seems to rise for a moment. The great change that comes over the dying elephant causes the narrator to regret his action even more and to try to hasten the end of the elephant’s suffering and his own, first by pouring bullets into the elephant and finally by going away where he could witness no more. It takes the elephant half an hour to die, a short time compared with the duration of the narrator’s remorse. Orwell’s details and pacing are as persuasive as his arguments in this essay. The elephant could have been spared, but the police officer had no choice. Although he fired the rifle, the crowd decided the animal’s fate, but, ultimately, it was imperialism that killed the elephant.
ALICE ADAMS “Truth or Consequences”
Emily Ames, the protagonist in Alice Adams’s short story “Truth or Consequences,” learns to look beyond stereotypes in judging people. The teasing engaged in by Emily and her classmates does
not acknowledge the human feelings of the “truck children” at their school. When her friends begin calling her “Emily Jones” and pretending that “‘Emily would like to kiss Car Jones!’”
the narrator confesses that “in all of this new excitement, the person I thought of least was the source of it all: Car Jones.” Proud of having been exempted from a year of schooling herself, she easily dismisses Carstair Jones as one of the “several overgrown children” who are often “expelled from . . . class . . . for some new acts of rebelliousness.” Like her peers, Emily believes that all of the country children are unkept, unconcerned with studies, and the offspring of illiterates. A product of her environment
, Emily has adopted the middle-class, “middle-South,” middle-of-the-century stance that Car Jones and others like him are “‘abnormal’” or “‘different’” people.
As the lives of Emily Ames and Carstair Jones unfold, the two become more alike. Both are dissatisfied with the mores and social roles their culture demands. Car Jones demands to be tested and is placed in high school. He attends the local university, and his family moves into town. While a college student, his sexual exploits with the “most popular senior in [the] high school” become almost legendary, and a play that he has written is performed by the college dramatic society. At the height of his academic achievement, Carstair Jones turns down membership in a prestigious campus fraternity. Later in life, his name graces the society pages and gossip columns of newspapers as he marries “a famous former movie star” and acquires a sort of celebrity.
The proper Emily Ames, well-to-do daughter of a deceased banker and niece of a college professor, lives through “three marriages to increasingly ‘rich and prominent’ men, . . . three children, and as many abortions.” She confesses that she hasn’t “counted [her] lovers,” and she reveals that she was “once raped, by someone to whom [she] was married.” Her life has not turned out as simply or happily as she expected. Emily realizes that Car Jones appears to have achieved more fame and satisfaction in life than she has, in spite of his humble and her promising beginnings. Married to a prominent surgeon, and probably to all outward appearances content and successful, Emily wonders at the story’s conclusion whether Car “could be as haunted as [she is] by everything that ever happened” in their lives. She has learned to distrust appearances. Just as Car Jones was more complex than the stereotype of a “truck child,” his life must now be more complicated than the typical, carefree image of celebrity persons.
Adams’s story is set in the southern United States in the middle part of the twentieth century, although it was not published until 1982. She includes details and explanations that communicate the social structure of her small town and its social mores to contemporary readers. The story’s narrator, Emily, enumerates Hilton’s three social classes of that time period: “At the scale’s top were the professors and their families. Next were the townspeople. . . . Country people were the bottom group.” Shedding more light on the town’s attitude, she explains that Negroes might have been in a fourth social class, but “they were so separate. . . . They were in effect invisible.” Adams seems to expect that her audience is more enlightened and worldly than the citizens of Hilton. She does not translate Charlotte Ames’s French idiom, which means literally, “good student,” when Emily’s mother refers to the proper suitor, Harry McGinnis, as one of the “bien élevé Southern boys.”
The social mores of the time and place are communicated by example. The gallant Harry McGinnis takes Emily “to a lot of Saturday movies” where they “clammily [hold] hands . . . for the rest of that spring, and into the summer.” However, Car Jones creates a scandal when he is reputed to have “‘gone all the way’—to have ‘done it’” with a local girl. The older narrator, who casually mentions her lovers and abortions, takes pains to re-create these more restrained customs and quaint euphemisms from her past, reminding readers that cultural expectations change with time and locale.
This historical narrative story is set within the frame of a contemporary narrative. The adult narrator has happened upon “a gossip column” reporting that “a man named Carstair Jones . . . married a famous former movie star.” The adult Emily then recalls her childhood interactions with a “truck child” named Car Jones, who must surely be the same person. Adams’s flashback plot allows her to interweave herself and Car as childhood and adult characters in her story, thus gradually revealing their separate but similar fates. Both felt like outsiders as children, she because of monetary wealth and scholastic success and he from an apparent lack of those valued traits. Both adults have gained a measure of outward “success” through fortuitous marriages.
Adams uses evocative description to engage her readers in the story. She chooses universal images to encourage her audience to imagine the schoolyard where the “truth or consequences” game occurs, listing “the huge polished steel frames for the creaking swings, the big green splintery seesaws, the rickety slides” as well as the activities of the children: hopscotch, jumping rope, and talking and giggling for the girls; and football or baseball for the boys. Similarly, she catalogs the elements of “Southern spring,” the “opulence” of which includes a “profusion of flowering shrubs and trees . . . riotous flower beds . . . lush lawns, . . . rows of brilliant iris, the flowering quince and dogwood trees, crepe myrtle, wisteria vines.”
The pace of the story engages readers as well. The plot moves slowly until the schoolyard game links Emily and Car together. The story’s title names the action that is most crucial to its plot and thesis. The childhood game of “truth or consequences” has consequences of its own. Emily’s friends’ playful insinuations that she is going to kiss Car Jones come true in a disturbing way. After that, everything happens more quickly. The retelling of the story, which occurs in the last few pages in which the adult Emily tries to re-envision Car Jones’s childhood, telling it from a differently biased point of view, is very brief in comparison with her first telling of the story’s events. In the last analysis, the consequences of her and Carstair Jones’s lives provide a glimpse at the truth.