Since the holidays have just passed and we’re in the glum of winter, I was feeling somewhat nostalgic and in the mood to read something older so I decided upon this new Open Road reprint of Southern-writer Joan Williams’ 1961 novel “The Morning and the Evening.” Set in the small town of Marigold, Mississippi, it centres primarily around mentally disabled 40 year-old Jake who is abruptly left living alone to fend for himself. Moreover, it’s a portrait of the town focusing on different characters’ perspectives chapter by chapter. Jake, who is a mute, gets a few chapters devoted solely to him and, unsurprisingly, Williams’ narrates these sections in a more “poetic” voice which is nonetheless effective and moving: “he felt words inside him the way he felt music.” The novel captures the feel of small-town Southern life with evocative descriptions and distinctive characters such as an older woman quietly addicted to a (legal-at-the-time) form of liquid opium or a black man named Little T whose lifelong ambition is to catch a legendary elusive catfish. The book’s great power is the way in which it explores the tension people feel between being both an integral part of their community while also remaining essentially isolated.
The townsfolk who has known Jake all his life rally around to help him get by while he lives on his own until a misunderstanding causes Jake to lash out in a way that disturbs all of the residents. He’s committed to an insane asylum which, in this instance, happens to be well funded and a positive nurturing environment. It’s fascinating reading about the process by which a few members of the community go about having Jake sectioned. There are a number of legal hoops for them to go through, but it is frighteningly easy. An administrator at the institution remarks how this leads to many people being wrongly committed and it takes some time to get them out. Expecting a riotous environment a visitor finds the place more filled with people overwhelmed by their circumstances: “She’d never realized before it was nervous breakdowns that sent folks here.” This is a rather surprising representation of a mental institution in this time period. It’s a testament to how well-meaning some staff can be in wanting to rehabilitate the ill, but the novel makes a good case for more stringently regulated methods to deal with how people are institutionalized.
The novel strikingly presents the way racial relations in this time period were handled in daily small town Southern life. There is a sense whereby people of colour for the most part live and work companionably alongside the white residents of the community, but only if the general understanding that they belong to another class is upheld. It’s understood among these white residents that the “worst boys” are ones who “took Negro girls as a lark and otherwise told impossible tales of their prowess with white ones.” When two people who are both married have an affair, it’s remarked that if the man’s wife were to find out what’s been going on she “wouldn’t care nearly so much if it was a Negro; she’d know it wasn’t somebody he was in love with.” At one point Little T presses slightly against the conventions: “For the heck of it only, he had not long ago referred to a white man, in public, by his first name. A white man, overhearing, had said, ‘Boy, I believe you mean Mister Bill, don’t you?’ The longstanding racial divide relies upon these small behavioural checks to uphold the way non-white residents are stationed below the white ones. Thereby this presents the insidious way racism can bear a smiling face as long as certain boundaries are maintained.
It’s interesting that this book began as a short story which Williams grew into a novel. It makes sense that this is the way it was constructed as many of the towns people’s chapters could be taken in isolation. Usually only a few details, mostly pertaining to Jake, act as the line which connects all their stories. The way in which she captures the solitude people can feel amongst groups and Jake's idiosyncratic way of dealing with the world reminded me strongly of the much more recent novel The Thing About December by Donal Ryan which I read a year ago. Williams writing is often strikingly beautiful particularly when she portrays the atmosphere of Mississippi: “During the long, overgrown summer the citrus smell of mock orange had filled the air; now that languid smell was lost on an air crisp and sharp with the aroma of leaves beginning to dry.” Not only does she show a keen sensual awareness for the landscape but touchingly portrays the passage of time as experienced by the residents so familiar with the elements around them. This novel allowed me to live amongst all the most joyful aspects of this particular community while making me grateful (much like the character of Jud who quickly moves away when he’s old enough) that I don’t have to actually inhabit it any longer.