“’I want me and Toussaint to lead our own sort of lives. I don’t want to be too close to white folks.’ ‘Too close to white folks . . . why, everything we get is from white folks.’ ‘We don’t get our hair, or our color, or our voices.’ ‘M-m . . . we get ‘em changed a good deal,’ observed Gracie obscurely. ‘But why do you want to stay here at all if you don’t want to be caretaker of the manor?’ ‘Because I would like for the colored people in the Reserve to see that a dark woman can live and talk and act with correctness and fineness without being associated with whites all the time.'”
I’ll just say it, straightaway: I have no idea why T.S. Stribling’s The Store won the 1933 Pulitzer Prize. No idea. It’s another book to add to the Really? This Won? category.
Here’s the thing of it—it’s a fine book; it’s an enjoyable book; it’s a book that tells a really ugly and difficult story about a really ugly and difficult period in American history; but it’s not a great book.
Then again, there’s the chance that it might be a great book in context of the trilogy that it’s a part of. The Store is the second part of Stribling’s Vaiden Trilogy, which follows the life of “Colonel” Miltiades Vaiden from the Civil War, through Reconstruction, and beyond. I couldn’t tell you what books one and three are all about, but I can tell you that The Store focuses on the symbiotic relationships between whites and blacks in Alabama during Reconstruction.
This was an extremely unsettling, incredibly offensive book that doesn’t hold anything back. There are so many beatings, lynchings, rapes, and repeated uses of The N Word that, in 1933, I’m sure this book could have been classified as pornography. It really is that vile. And to be honest, the most unsettling thing about the language that Stribling uses in this book is how flippant he is with it. The characters don’t say the N word in a mean, accusatory, or angry demeanor—they just say it. Liberally and passively.
But this is where I’ll give Stribling (or, perhaps, the Pulitzer Prize committee) high marks, as it is the first Pulitzer-winner that honestly (unflinchingly, more accurately) deals with American racism and race relations. The only way to tell the story of racism in America is to present the people involved in it as real, flawed people—which Stribling does a pretty good job of.
Stribling isn’t a perfect writer, though, so there are plenty of plot holes and development points that lead nowhere scattered throughout the book. The titular “store” for example, which was Vaiden’s lifelong dream to own; then he bought one (by very dubious means) and it was rarely mentioned again and has very little to do with the story. Or all of Jerry Catlin’s forsaking Christianity and dabbling with mysticism, which, again, just seems to kind of fizzle out. Or Vaiden marrying Sydna, which seemed really scandalous when he first brought it up, but definitely went on the backburner once the marriage took place.
So, it’s not perfect. Instead, The Store is, most accurately, the best piece of writing that we have from a really solid writer.