I began this book wondering why Carson McCullers was so drawn to writing about girls of around twelve or thirteen, like Mick from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter or the musical teenager from Wunderkind. This novel follows another adventurous and unhappy young girl, Frankie, over the course of a strange weekend in which many things change for her. The story is set in the 1940s and begins with the news that her brother Jarvis is about to get married to a woman he met just before he was posted to Alaska with the army. This announcement stirs up a violent burst of emotion in Frankie, a mixture of jealousy, restlessness and a wish for belonging, which soon turns into the daydream that the newly married couple will take her away to live with them after the wedding.
Frankie lives in a small town in the South and she is lonely. She is not a member of the club formed by the older girls who organise parties in their clubhouse. ‘She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world…an unjoined person who hung around in doorways’. Frankie’s mother died on the day she was born, and she lives with her father, who owns a jewellery and watch repair shop. There is the sense that she is just waiting until this transitional phase of life ends and she grows up. She spends most of the long summer afternoons hanging round in the kitchen with Berenice, the black housekeeper, and John Henry, her small, scrawny and odd six-year-old cousin, where they eat endless meals, play cards and have meandering conversations.
Although the characters are often bored and just passing time until something more exciting happens, these parts of the book are actually the most interesting. Their conversations are strangely compelling, expressing their longings, histories and speculations about life. I could empathise with Frankie, but I liked Berenice the best, especially her stories about her four ex-husbands and the way she responded kindly to Frankie’s constant emotional turmoil and questioning. One interesting talk they had was about the repetition of events, about how a person can go through a wonderful experience and then always, forever after, wish to relive it. Essentially, it’s a warning that wishes and daydreams can become part of someone’s personality and difficult to escape from. Berenice warns Frankie about her fantasies of running away with her brother and his wife, and asks her, ‘Will you be trying to break into weddings for the rest of your days?’
Frankie is an imaginative girl, daydreaming about far away places like Alaska, often packing her suitcase and fantasising about leaving town, about being a boy and going to fight in the war. I felt the book really captured teenage anxieties about appearance and growing up. Frankie is always worrying about being so tall for her age, and fears that, if she continues growing, she may end up as a fairground attraction like ‘the Freaks’ at the local fair that fascinate her so much. The fact that she looks so grown-up for her age actually gets her into major trouble later in the book. But the way she feels a connection with the Freaks reflects the curiosity about unusual, damaged and marginalised people in all the books by Carson McCullers I’ve read so far. Frankie starts wondering about the lives of the Freaks, how much money they earn and whether they ever get married. In a similar way, she sees herself as a criminal, identifying with another outcast group, and is drawn towards the town jail. ‘Often some criminals would be hanging to the bars; it seemed to her that their eyes, like the long eyes of the Freaks at the fair, had called to her as though to say: We know you.’
This novel also made me realise how the radio and news of the war were a big presence in the 1940s. The radio is constantly playing in Frankie’s house all summer long as background noise, and is described as a babble of different sounds, voices from a distant country, ‘a war voice crossed with the gabble of an advertiser and underneath there was the sleazy music of a sweet band’. However, Frankie feels disconnected from the world and the war, feeling that they are both irreconcilably separate from her own life, and that she is shut out from the significant events that are happening in the world. It expresses how someone living in a small town can feel her life doesn’t matter and she is somehow remote from reality. When she’s fantasising about travelling away with her brother and his new wife, she tells Berenice defiantly that one day she will talk on the radio and be asked to give an eye-witness account of something; that is part of her idea of success, of being an important person.
Race wasn’t mentioned often in the novel, not explicitly, but Frankie understands how Berenice’s life is even more constrained than her own because she is black. After reading about the ‘pane of glass’ dividing black and white areas in the town in Time Will Darken It, I noticed that there was a similar border crossed in The Member of the Wedding, when Frankie passes through ‘the unseen line dividing Sugarville from the white people’s town’. To me, it’s interesting to see how this division is represented in fiction, and also how the narrators in these books can cross those borderlines, go everywhere and see everything, unlike the inhabitants of the town.
One thing I was struck by in reading this book was the many objects and people that were divided, half one thing and half another. One small example was an expression that’s partly friendly and partly angry, as different feelings compete inside one person. There are loads of examples to do with gender, like one of the Freaks at the fair, who’s ‘divided completely in half – the left side was a man and the right side a woman’. Once I’d started noticing this, I saw it everywhere in the novel, and wondered if that’s partly what interested Carson McCullers about her young girl characters. Frankie is a mixture of child and adult, she looks almost grown-up but still has many childlike emotions, she has a new longing for freedom and adventure but her closest companion is her six-year-old cousin. Someone whose life is undefined in this way, pulled one way then another, is an interesting character for an author to explore. These strange hybrid things and people remind me of a Greek mask, half-smiling and half-sad. And it seems appropriate because Carson McCullers’ books are themselves such a mixture of tragedy and comedy.