I was first exposed to God’s Little Acre in a graduate seminar, and I’ve been fascinated by this novel ever since. Caldwell operates on a number of levels within his prose using a variety of techniques that I admire. Currently I’m working on a novel and find myself picking up Caldwell, dipping in here and there, thinking about how it is put together. One technique that strikes me is Caldwell’s repeated invocation of an image that’s woven into expository material, altered slightly each time, and then fully articulated at the climax of that particular narrative thread. It’s as though the author starts by piling up individual tiles for smaller mosaics while working towards an idea that will thematically dominate the end of the work.
The reader is given access to the thoughts of Will Thompson, as he fantasizes about the mill he worked for and other mills in the area. An example of one of his daydreams comes shortly after the character is introduced:
He remembered the when the mill down below was running night and day. The men who worked in the mill looked tired and worn, but the girls were in love with the looms and the spindles and the flying lint. The wild-eyed girls on the inside of the ivy-walled mill looked like potted plants in bloom (69).
Variations on this thought can be found running through the prose like a slender thread for the entirety of the book in ways that are significant but not overstated. This is a subtle technique that’s difficult to pull off successfully. In effect, Caldwell is able to present the reader with a poignant symbol for the novel’s political agenda while developing Will’s character and imbuing him with a kind of supernatural aura. One could pick apart the significance of these fantasies for symbols and/or tropes: gender, labor, class, etc; all of these things are present and relevant; however, I am much less interested in why Caldwell places it here much more eager to figure out how he pulled it off.
It could have gone horribly wrong. Each lapse into poetic language might stick out drawing attention to itself. The reason it doesn’t is that Will is established as thinking in these terms almost immediately, so it seems natural for him to do so. He is the only character to think in such a manner, and for that reason alone he stands out. The other characters operate on a much more subsidiary level: Ty Ty has no vision for his land beyond his delusions of hitting the mother lode; the family, and extended family living with him, follow the patriarch with little thought for anything besides immediate sexual urges as well as vague longings for something beyond the farm that they are unable to articulate. This is one of the reasons Will’s visions are both haunting and significant without being distracting, as they are often woven into expository material. He will often think of the mill, the working girls, or the ivy-walls in sections where the fantasy is not fully realized. Other times, he will have tiny bursts of thought that stem from seemingly unrelated topics. This technique is a kind of endless refrain that inhabits the reader’s subconscious with the symbols the author wants to get across while not doing so in a fashion that is so overt that the reader is sickened by what they may read as polemic.
I’m interested in using this in my own fiction and see Caldwell’s work as a case study of its success. I think part of the trick is to use language that’s as specific and lyrical as it is ambiguous; language that inhabits the prose in an organic and germane manner yet alludes to greater themes without beating the reader over the head. It is all so simple and straightforward in theory. Isn’t that always the case? I’ll probably blog about GLA more in the future as this is a rich text for a fledgling novelist, and I find myself turning to it quite frequently.