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Synopsis

This novel is set in Perquimmons City, North Carolina, an imaginary town of roughly 5,500 people (slightly over 40 percent black). Although it doesn’t ignore the serious racial problems of the early twentieth century, their depiction isn’t the novel’s main purpose. Its main purpose is to describe the underlying tension between an extremely snobbish and aristocratic family—the Merritts—who live in one of the state’s few surviving antebellum mansions and whose forebears had dominated the area around Perquimmons City until the early 1880s. Then newcomers, with more education and greater technical skills, arrived in the area and, without making a conscious effort to do so, challenge the Merritts’ social and political leadership, which they’re determined to preserve. That’s an impossible task for them, however, because the current head of the Merritt family is hated for cheating at cards, showing no concern for the property of others, and his well-known practice of forcing himself on dozens of young black women who live in the old slave cabins behind his mansion and in a small enclave shortly beyond the long bend where West Main Street turns into the Edenton Road. That William Merritt forces himself on so many young black women is extremely galling to his wife Marguerite, who’s almost as annoyed by his laziness and failure to keep their pasture fences in a state of good repair. In September 1906, almost two hundred of their dairy cows escape through large breaks in their fences shortly after midnight and wander through the town’s best residential streets looking for food and water. The next morning, hundreds of families look out of their windows and see their yards littered with ugly cow pies and choice shrubs almost defoliated. The outrage against the Merritts reaches a fever pitch, and Marguerite is so annoyed at her husband because of his laziness and the occasional beatings she receives from him that she leaves him in the fall of 1906. After two months, she accepts a reconciliation with him out of financial necessity. Eighteen years before the novel opens early in 1901, Thomas Stanton, the youngest son of the founder of a chain of New England textile mills, moved to Perquimmons City and, with his father’s help, established a mill that employed over three hundred people, men and women, triggering a gradual transformation of the local economy. A much more important outsider, Dr. Joseph Hanford, a native of central North Carolina, arrived in 1895 and opened an office before marrying a local beauty, Julia Summerlin, who in short order became one of the town’s leading hostesses and the mother of his two children. An unusually tolerant and conscientious man, Dr. Hanford insists on treating his black and white patients in his office, much to the discomfort of most of the whites who believe he should have set up segregated waiting rooms, which he never did out of deep personal conviction. The last important newcomer to arrive in town is William James Van Landingham, a New York financier whose second wife is Dr. Hanford’s first cousin, Frances. (Her father, Joe’s uncle, had left North Carolina shortly after the Civil War in the hope of making a fortune on Wall Street.) For almost a year, the Van Landinghams had planned to build a winter home in Palm Beach, Florida. But shortly after northern and central Florida are devastated by a powerful hurricane in August 1910 and William Merritt is murdered two months later—Bill Van Landingham had met the Merritts during a brief visit to Perquimmons City in February 1910 and found them insufferable—Bill and his wife decide to build their winter home in North Carolina and buy three adjacent tracts of land several miles east of Perquimmons City. With the help of a local contractor in January 1911, they retain a fine young architect from a nearby town to design their new home for them during the coming year. Shortly after the Van Landinghams develop permanent ties with the area, they donate a large amount of money for the establishment of two volunteer fire departments so they can provide assistance in case there’s a fire at their winter home. They also buy two thousand shares of stock in a long-planned telephone company which local investors had been unable to finance by themselves. Finally, because Bill Van Landingham turns sixty in 1911 and is concerned about good medical care, he offers to pay for the construction of a local hospital, much to Dr. Hanford’s delight. Since moving to town in 1895, Dr. Hanford had called many times for a capital funds drive to raise enough money to build a local hospital, but his calls had fallen on deaf ears. Now his dream of a large, well-equipped hospital for the area is about to be realized, and he feels Perquimmons City has just acquired a pair of guardian angels in his cousin and her rich but very generous husband, an associate of such prominent New Yorkers as J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and the young Franklin D. Roosevelt. Although Dr. Hanford is a fine doctor and an extremely sympathetic character with a light touch and excellent sense of humor, his sister-in-law, Lucy Summerlin, is probably the novel’s most interesting character. Shorter and less attractive than her sister Julia, Lucy had hoped to marry her teenage sweetheart, Jobie Caldwell. But Jobie had died very suddenly from yellow fever during the summer he and Lucy were sixteen and about to start their senior year in high school. Lucy never gets over his death altogether and remains single until her dying day in 1931. Shortly after Lucy received her high school diploma in 1888 as the valedictorian of her class, she joined the household staff of William and Marguerite Merritt and moved into one of their home’s attic rooms. During her first six years at the Merritt House, Lucy worked as the family’s upstairs maid before becoming the Merritt children’s teacher. Unfortunately her three pupils, Becca, Willie, and Little Robert, were undisciplined and had almost no interest in their studies. As a result, Lucy is amazed and very pleased in January 1901 when her brother Chip offers her a job in the town’s only drugstore which he’s just bought from the widow of Arthur Bradley, the store’s founder and the man for whom Chip had worked since graduating from high school in 1884. Several months after moving out of the Merritt House, Lucy rents a cottage from her brother-in-law, Dr. Hanford, and becomes bolder and more assertive than she’d ever been as one of the Merritts’ servants. In several months she becomes an important member of the Altar Guild of St. John’s Episcopal Church, and at her sister Julia’s insistence, she joins the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the only women’s club in town. Because of her extensive knowledge of local history and genealogy, which the other members admire, Lucy is elected its secretary-historian and plays an active role in that organization although she never feels or voices any sympathy for the Confederate cause. Of course, Lucy’s life isn’t all happiness and bliss during the months after she leaves the Merritt House. Although she loves her job at the drugstore, she soon becomes convinced that her brother Chip, with whom she’d always been close and to whom she feels deeply indebted for saving her from her dismal existence at the Merritt House, is playing around on his wife Rhonda. Lucy likes and admires Rhonda a great deal and knows she’ll be deeply hurt if she ever hears about Chip’s affair with Lillian Greenfield, a strikingly handsome widow who lives in a bungalow directly across the street from Lucy’s cottage. Lucy is torn about what to do, and on one occasion she confronts Chip about his affair with “the widow Greenfield.” He denies any involvement with Lillian so vehemently Lucy lets the matter drop, although she hopes and prays that Rhonda will never ask her if she knows anything about Chip’s affair. Even though Lucy doesn’t realize it until some years later, Rhonda is well a

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