Unsettling. That is my reaction to reading The Store by T.S. Stribling. The novel is set in the South around 1884, the time of President Cleveland’s election. The story won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel in 1932. I am now reading it in 2012, a time in which stories about Trayvon Martin being shot fill the news. I am seeing the novel through the lenses of race relations. I wonder whether the readers in 1932 had the same reaction.
The Store is one of the less popular Pulitzer winning novels. I found it hard to get into. In all fairness, it is the second book in a trilogy and I did not read the first book. For me the book was interesting enough, but I was not particularly emotionally invested. Colonel Miltiades Vaiden, the main character, is flawed but has some admirable qualities. When he works at the store, he treats the blacks fairly. When a young woman—the daughter of a fallen comrade from the Civil War— hero-worships him, he has some degree of self-awareness. Yet, in the beginning of the book he is hell-bent on seeking revenge on the man who cheated his family out of the profits from five bales of cotton twenty-five years ago. My favorite characters is Gracie, a former slave of the Vaiden family and mistress of the Colonel’s nemesis. I felt for Gracie’s attempts to make a better life for herself and for her son at a time that blacks had few rights. Her son Toussaint, “a white negro,” is one of the tragic characters of the novel. There is a thin ribbon of Occult/Spirituality woven through the story. The postmaster is known to chat with the dead. The Colonel’s nephew spends more time studying the Occult than his college courses. For me the topic was given too much weight at the end and not enough in the rest of the book.
The book is worthwhile, but it is not high on the list of books that I would recommend. Right now, I think that it would be a good book for a discussion about race.