HEW AGAINST THE GRAIN by Betty Sue Cummings


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The Repass farm sits smack on the new Virginia/West Virginia border; the family itself is split down the middle on the question of secession; and the Civil War exacts a toll that nearly destroys them altogether. The tragedies, which virtually defy summarizing here, include a son killed in each army, two more maimed, the father's loss of sanity, the house and crops burned by Union raiders, an anti-slavery son-inlaw hanged by vigilantes, and two freed slaves senselessly murdered. Of all the violence, the most explicit is fifteen-year-old Mattilda's rape by a man she in turn mortally wounds with a shotgun, watching without remorse as his intestines and very life pour onto the kitchen floor. The problem here is not that the blood and death are exploited or sensationalized. Rather, they are disproportionately powerful--both as emotional touchstones and as a statement of Cummings' theme, the family's collective loss of will and its rescue through Mattilda's personal strength. By comparison, the progress of Mattilda's uneasy comradeship with Docie, her former slave, her satisfaction in being allowed to do men's work on the farm, and her courtship by a bright, gentlemanly young soldier and eventual marriage, take place on a strikingly less mature level. It's probably true that today's readers are better prepared to accept rape and disembowelment than a more searching treatment of an emancipated slave's dilemma or, simply, the day-to-day privations of rebuilding a ravaged farm. And Mattilda is indeed an empathic character, though one suspects that she is too much of the typical breed of adolescent heroine to have survived all the crises Cummings sends her way.

Pub Date: March 9th, 1977
Publisher: Atheneum