Richard Derus's Reviews > Kneel to the Rising Sun and Other Stories

Kneel to the Rising Sun and Other Stories by Erskine Caldwell
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's review
Mar 04, 12

really liked it
Read in February, 2012

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Book Report: Erskine Caldwell, author of the indelible splotches on the American Southern escutcheon [God's Little Acre] and [Tobacco Road], here collects seventeen of his short stories written before 1934, and set in the interwar period South, that was uneasily eyeing change and almost imperceptibly moving into the 20th Century...much against the white folks's will.

Caldwell says, in his introduction to this collection, that many writers are guided away from the short story format by well-meaning self-appointed cicerones. The novel, an aspiring writer is told, is the principle written medium, and short stories are a dead end. Pfui, says novelist Caldwell, some stories only need a few hundred words, and don't let anyone tell you any different.

Caldwell was right. Some stories don't need a novel. Even if some of these collected tales could be blown up into good novels, they're right-sized in this memorable, wonderful (if depressing) body of good work.

My Review: For this review of a collection of short stories, I'm adopting what I've come to call “The Bryce Method.” for the gentleman who first brought it to my attention on Goodreads. I will offer capsule reviews of the stories that make up the collection, since they're the important players and not the gestalt of the collection as such.

Candy-Man Beechum: A very short tale of Candy-Man, a seven-foot-tall mule-skinner who, one fateful Friday night, sets off across the fields and through the white folks's town to see his little yellow gal. Stopping for a fish-fry dinner, Candy-Man runs afoul of the white night policeman, refuses to stop and submit to being imprisoned for the crime of being on his way, and is shot dead in front of everyone at the fish-fry. He dies, however, glad not to be cowed and submissive, but instead as a man and worthy of respect.

The Walnut Hunt: Church and Ray, two young country lads, meet up to hunt them some walnuts from the trees growing wild around P.G. Howard's farm. They jump over ditches in the red cotton-farming dirt to get to the grove closest to them, and damn if they don't find somebody's beaten them to all the walnuts in there. The boys jump another ditch when Ray says he sees someone already diwn there. Scared, the two lean over the ditch and see a strange sight: Annie, the town pump, at the bottom of the red-clay ditch staring up at the sky and screaming! She makes the boys promise they won't tell. Tell what, they ask, since they have not clue one about what they're witnessing. “I'm having a baby,” replies Annie. With that, she screams again, and the boys take off running like the Devil himself is after them. Ray, a little more scared than Church, and a little less emotional about it, reaches his front porch without even checking to see if his sobbing buddy has gotten up from the stubble he fell down in there in P.G. Howard's cotton field.

Childhood ends for us all. For some, the ending is rougher than for others.

Horse Thief: Mr. John Turner's hired man takes Betsy, the rawboned mare, out for a clandestine rendezvous with Lud Moseley's younger daughter, Naomi, one Thursday night. Since he's only supposed to call on Naomi on Sundays, he won't tell Mr. John where he's going, though Mr. John pretty much knows, and gets a chuckle out of it. Seeing Naomi and her older sister arguing through their bedroom window, he knows he'll have to wait an hour or more for Naomi to sneak out and meet him by the swing in her front yard, so to keep his presence a secret, he puts Betsy into an empty stall in Lud Moseley's barn. Comes midnight or one, he gropes around the unfamiliar barn, finds Betsy all unbridled and unharnessed, figures he did it himself in his excitement at seeing Naomi, bridles and harnesses the horse and rides off home to Mr. John Turner's. The next morning, Lud Moseley and the sheriff come to get him for horse theft! Turns out he took Lightfoot, Lud Moseley's calico horse, by mistake, and the only way out of trouble would be to tell the men that he was there to see Naomi...thus ruining her reputation, getting her into trouble with her pa, and breaking his promise that he'd do anything for her.

Even go to prison for being a horse thief. Which anyone who knows him knows he's not. Such is the role of honor among the not so bright Southern males.

The Man Who Looked like Himself: Luther Branch, past forty, can't catch a break or make a dime. No one in his little town can figure it out, why Luther can't sell a single solitary thing to anyone...why he can't even sell oranges to Mrs. Todd, who came out her front door to look at the ones Luther'd brought onto her porch! But everything changes when Luther, trying to tell Ben Howard at the grocery that he's decided to apply to get on the county poor farm, gets the break of his life: Henry needs a hog butchered AND NOW because it's been run over! Ben and Henry look Luther over, and decide then and there that this is Luther's calling: Butcher. Why, he even looks like a butcher.

Luther finally knows what he looks like, and so who he is: He looks like himself, and he's a butcher. He can finally take up life and make a living. He looks like himself, and he's a butcher. Every misfit's dream is to find the place he fits. Luther Branch does it.


Maud Island: Jim and Milt are out camping on Maud Island with their Uncle Marvin the preacher when, alas alack and welladay, a shantyboat comes along to take advantage of the privacy afforded by being in the middle of the Mighty Mississippi River for Jane and Marge and Mr. Graham. And, it looks like, for Uncle Marvin the preacher too. He drinks a beer or two with the low companions foisted on him by fate, then rushes the boys off to the Tennessee shore to get themselves on home before he takes full advantage of his luck. Once home, the boys's Aunt Sophie wants to know the whereabouts of Uncle Marvin. They don't tell, and turns out they don't need to: Sophie lays into the absent Marvin Hutchins with fury and verve for taking up with another shantyboat girl. Thus do Milt and Jim learn, forcefully, that the adult world is riddled with secrets and most of them are sordid and creepy and involve lies and sex.

Childhood ends for us all.

The Shooting: A girl with a gun starts shooting up the town square, aiming for a man who is running as fast as he can away from her. Townsfolk are up in arms and along comes Toy Shaw, the local lawman. He's as scared as anyone else, but the crowds force him to deal with the scared girl with the big gun...he orders her to drop it, she refuses and fires again at the man she's trying to kill, then Toy shouts at her to aim for the sky, not to kill the man...she aims for the sky, drops the gun when it's empty, and swoons into her terrified would-be victim's arms. Toy, according to the townsfolk, saved the day. Sort of. From a girl with a gun.

Beats me what this one's got to say. Nothin' much, if you want my opinion.

Honeymoon: Claude Barker and Willeen Howard get married. It's Claude's first time with a white girl. Willeen, a willing young slut who's even offered herself to dimwitted ol' Crip who works down at the gas station, has gone and tied herself to no-account Claude, who'd rather shoot pool than takes his low-rent bride on a low-rent honeymoon in his daddy's no-rent house. And there's poor Crip, all sad because he never took Willeen up on her offer.

Yeah, it's a slice of life. It's just not a slice I myownself fancy. In fact, Claude makes me queasy and Willeen makes me mad and the story is just distasteful. In the 1970s, there was a song called “Third-Rate Romance.” The chorus was, “Third-rate romance, low-rent redezvous...” I never knew it before now, but the band that sang it was made up of Erskine Caldwell readers.

Martha Jean: When Hal and his pal The Type get tossed out of their crap game, busted flat, they brave the sleety winter night long enough to get to Nick's, where they expect a quick loan and maybe something to eat. What they get is the stiff-arm, as Nick tries to close up for the night and save some money on heating his mostly empty place where no one's playing the slots. Then in walks a pretty young girl, who tells Nick her name's Martha Jean. Nick clearly decides he's going to have his way with her the instant he sees her, and she, hungry as she is, either doesn't see it or doesn't understand it until it's too late. Hal tries to step in between them, but gets no back-up from The Type or anyone else, and ends up on the floor after Nick clocks him. Next thing Hal knows, he's out the door int the cold and sleety night, listening to Martha Jean scream.

Erskine Caldwell did not think much of his fellow man. No indeed he did not, no sirree bob.

A Day's Wooing: Painfully shy Tuffy goes a-wooin' Miss Nancy after he moves the cows over to the johnson grass to give them a change of diet. He can't make himself say a single word to Miss Nancy, and her daddy Berry, sitting on the front porch with the rest of the family having a late summer Sunday watermelon, has to carry the conversation pretty much by himself. Carry it he does, as Tuffy can't make a sound to express the fact that he's come to ask for Nancy's hand in marriage. Finally, Nancy's pill of a brother drives Tuffy away by snapping him with a garter and urging him to go over to Hardpan and pick up some girls with them. Tuffy, completely undone, runs back to his car and leaves. Berry is confused, Nancy is distraught, and the brothers go for another melon out of the field.

It must be torture to be shy. I read this story while shouting “SPIT IT OUT!!” at hopeless, hapless Tuffy. I squirm and writhe in acute emotional pain when I read about this type of character. I try to help them, to shove my own “what's the worst that can happen” mindset into their “cannibals will eat me if I Do It” fearful, anxious brains. Oddly, it never works. sigh

The Cold Winter: A man in a single unheated room listens to the life of a little girl and her mother in the single room next door as a way of keeping himself from feeling the numbing, deadly cold of February outside. The mother and child talk and laugh, and go about their lives, in a curious state of waiting. Finally, the man hears what they've all come to wait for: the arrival of the child's father, and the tense confrontation that ends in murder. The man next door shivers under his blanket in his unheated room, doing nothing.

There is a paralysis that comes with desperation. The man in this story is desperate. He has no job, he has no life, he has no support system. And he has no reason left to do even the simplest thing, like open his door and look at the murder taking place in the room next to him. Caldwell thinks about this level of society a lot, as most good socialists did back in his day. Those were the days....

The Girl Ellen: Jim and Doris have a single girlfriend named Ellen. She shows up on Jim's one day off from the factory where he works, when he and Doris were planning to go for a swim. Flirty Ellen horns right on in and, as she follows Doris into the house to get ready for the three-way outing, turns to give the startled and displeased Jim a quick kiss on the lips. Things degenerate from there to the point where Doris is aware of the inappropriate flirtation because Jim is warming up to the idea of some adventure with Ellen. Sadly, things go wrong, Doris ends up dead on the bottom of the pool, and Jim walks miles home only to collapse exhausted on his own floor, falling asleep wondering if Ellen would be there when he awoke.

I once had a close relationship with a married couple. It ended badly because the wife developed strong and unreciprocated feelings for me. It was a painful situation. I can't imagine how such a three-legged stool can ever be anything but trouble waiting to happen. Happily for me, in my case no one died!

The Growing Season: Jesse's cotton crop is dying under the double threat of wire-grass (a horrible, horrible weed) and blistering, unrelenting heat. He's got no help, and he got behind in killing the wire-grass; his wife had a sunstroke year before, so she's no use, and there isn't even a Negro around the place. While he's out scraping the wire-grass, he finally loses what little is left of his sanity and kills Fiddler. What Fiddler might be, we are not told. Hounds are mentioned as a class of being, but not named, so Fiddler wouldn't seem to be a dog, and yet was kept chained outside under a chinaberry tree. Your guess is as good as mine, but my money's on Fiddler being a defective child or relative, because the wife has a twelve-volt conniption fit as Jesse's out killing Fiddler. Afterwards, Jesse's all energized and goes into battle with the wire-grass again. The end.


Daughter: After that last story, one shudders to think what this one might be about....

And rightly so, as it turns out. Jim Carlisle, sharecropper for Colonel Henry Maxwell, shot his eight-year-old daughter dead because she woke up again saying she was hungry. Her daddy couldn't take it any more. He'd made enough to feed the family on his share. Colonel Maxwell took it all away because a mule died on Jim's watch. The whole town's there at the jail to find out what happened, and when they hear, there assembles a mob set to free Jim from jail. The sheriff walks away on home.

Grim, grim, grim. Life among the poor isn't any fun ever, but ye gods and little fishes! The Slough of Despond looks like a movie star's pool compared to the dark, stagnant waters Caldwell has us treading in these stories!

Blue Boy: What fresh hell is this....

Blue Boy is a mentally defective Negro servant of Grady's, trained by the master to entertain his guests with repulsive party tricks. This New Year's Day, Grady has five counties' worth of relations to his hog-and-turkey dinner and, in the post-prandial stupor that a feast can leave a person in, has Blue Boy come and entertain the assembled company. For the last time, it turns out, as Blue Boy has a fatal fit after his last party trick.

Horrible, and horrifying, and completely without any tiniest stretch of human decency.

Slow Death: Doesn't THAT title just buoy your hopes for some relief from the grims!

Dave was a family man, a wife and three daughters and a modest rented home, until he lost his job at the fertilizer plant in South Augusta, Georgia. His landlord was unusually generous, letting him slide for six months. After that, though, the pressure to move cost Dave the lives of two daughters and his wife as windows were removed, doors taken away, and the January elements and hunger did the rest. Dave's remaining daughter was last seen in the arms of a policeman, carrying her off to a fate he doesn't know. Now Dave lives with Mike in a packing crate down under the Fifth Street Bridge, picks up odd jobs for fifty cents a day at most, and shares what he makes with the younger Mike, who tries not to take what little Dave has. This is the slow death of the title. It's speeded up for Dave as a traffic accident leaves him barely breathing and his fellow bums cluster around calling for the driver who hit him (a scumbag who denies Dave is even hurt, and finally runs away) to take Dave to the hospital, which never happens. Mike watches Dave die, the whole time refusing Dave's insistent urgings to take the half-dollar in his right-hand pants pocket. In the end, when a cop arrives, it's the bums he's eager to rush off, and Mike catches the worst of it, a billy club to the head. He wakes up being carried back to the Hooverville by his fellow bums.

Brother, can you spare a dime? It would surprise many of the people able to read this review online to know just how easy it is to lose everything. It's happened to me, and it took less than two years. Luckily for me I have a social network and I was not forced to live in a packing crate under a bridge. But believe someone who has been there when he tells you, conservatives and libertarians, the “generous handouts” that so many of you rail against were not there for me, and I was not able still fighting for, in fact...access the disability benefits that my Social Security contributions over the years theoretically, and socialistically according to many, funded. My own savings long gone from fighting to retain my home against the insurance companies that refused and the hospital that demanded payments my employer-provided plan guaranteed, what hope was there? My family? No. My friends? Thank goodness, yes, but all personally granted generosity has a limit. So perhaps some of you who haven't experienced this upending and upheaval will pause to reflect on WHY your payment taxes, if some of those taxes save your fellow humans from starvation and homelessness, should cause you such pain.

Shut up and pay for what a decent person should not complain about funding: Food, shelter, and health care for all.

Masses of Men: Too disgusting even to describe. Mother so desperate she pimps her ten-year-old out for food because her husband was killed on the job and suddenly no one at the company knows who he was.

Greed appalls me at the best of times. This level of greed is unthinkable, and yet it's not. When I was unemployed, I was denied benefits because my employer didn't want to pay them. Explain to me again how capitalism and a free, unfettered market are good. I've forgotten.

Kneel to the Rising Sun: Lonnie Newsome, starving sharecropper of vile bully Arch Gunnard, is too cowardly, too stupid, and too hungry to ask for his due rations for himself, his father, and his wife, or to prevent Arch from sadistically cutting off Lonnie's dog's tail. When his father wanders away in the night, searching for food, and falls to his death into the hog pen, Lonnie wakes his Negro friend Clem up to help Lonnie look for the old man. Clem ends up talking back to Arch, and runs away when Arch calls up a lynching party. Lonnie, too weak and cowardly to resist the pressure on him, tells the lynch mob where to find Clem, sealing the Negro man's doom. After witnessing the murder, Lonnie goes home to his wife, who asks him to get them some food before his father comes home. Lonnie can't even bring himself to tell her what has happened to his father, and greets the dawn of another day as he greets them all: On his knees, unable to stand on his feet.

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Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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message 1: by Terry (new)

Terry Wow, grim indeed.

message 2: by Stephen (new)

Stephen This looks like a must read. Thank you, sir. Another stellar review.

message 3: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey Keeten Sometime when I need cheered up I'll dig into this. haha

Karla Glad I have this one in the TBR. Sounds great!

message 5: by Judith (new)

Judith Another grand review...and, i don't just mean word count (oof!)

When I was a kid, in Akron, Ohio...i read every Erskine Caldwell novel on the library's shelves...and there were quite a few in the late 50s-early 60s

...but, i never read his short stories....sad, that

This puppy be on The List....and, I'm glad you're back, you


Karla I started reading this & Candy-Man Beechum has added resonance, given the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman debacle.

Richard Derus I can see that. Disturbing how the worst in human nature is evergreen, isn't it?

Karla Didn't you get the memo? Racism is dead in America.

Richard Derus Karla (Mossy Love Grotto) wrote: "Didn't you get the memo? Racism is dead in America."

So say the Supremes. Might I remind the assembled company that these self-same Supremes, in an earlier casting, gave us the Dred Scott and Plessy-v-Ferguson decisions? These are not demigods. And this court is unusually vile in its makeup. Roberts should be impeached and Thomas simply and quietly removed. Scalia needs messy, public assassination.

message 10: by Howard (last edited Oct 22, 2015 09:24AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Howard Your excellent review reinforces the point that Caldwell never sugarcoated his views on poverty, race, or class. I also greatly appreciated your personal views on what hard times can do to people who don't deserve to experience them. I hope things have improved for you since you wrote this review more than three years ago.

Richard Derus Howard wrote: "Your excellent review reinforces the point that Caldwell never sugarcoated his views on poverty, race, or class. I also greatly appreciated your personal views on what hard times can do to people w..."

Many thanks for the kind compliment, and for the (accurate) well-wishes.

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