We’ve talked about more contemporary novels of late than the classics so it’s with a joyful heart that I turn to the past this afternoon. A popular book on Harper Lee has reignited interest in the perennial favorite To Kill a Mockingbird, and while I find it altogether charming in some aspects, I feel fervor over that particular book has swept away attention from other just as deserving Southern classics. I cut my teeth on Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding, and if I could only read ten books for the rest of eternity, it would certainly make the list.
On the surface, Delta Wedding is the story of the Fairchild family’s preparations for the wedding of their second oldest daughter Dabney’s wedding to (gasp!) the plantation overseer Troy. Taking place over the course of only a few days during the sumptuous year of 1923, this novel is not to be confused with modern day wedding preparations. It is the constant threat of tension and the relentless psychological undercurrent behind every conversation that spurs the reader on through the novel in an attempt to find out what truly defines each character. The Fairchild family is large and sprawling. Disagreements from a hundred years earlier are nearly as fresh as they day they happened. Every character is a masterpiece in tribute to the flawed human condition.
At the center of the boisterous preparation is nine year old Laura McRaven, a cousin to the Fairchilds, who travels alone to Fairchild plantation for the festivities. Her desire to be beautiful and animated like her Fairchild cousins is evident, but Laura feels set apart due to the sudden death of her mother, Annie Laurie. She wanders through the Fairchild’s an observant and sensitive child, and it stuns her that people casually use her mother’s death to mark the passage of time such as when a family member says she had a dress made up “before Annie Laurie died”.
Dabney is the second oldest and most beautiful Fairchild girl, arguably the character of her generation that most fully embodies the characteristic Fairchild traits. Vain, slightly selfish, and highly popular, she has “gotten ahead” of her oldest sister, Shelley, the intense but intellectual older sister who has no desire to be the heroine in the family. Just as her aunt Annie Laurie inexplicably married a Yankee, Dabney too is marrying beneath her station–to the plantation overseer, no less. Dabney’s and Shelley’s desire to be close but inability to find much common ground other than blood resonates through their awkward interactions.
At the center of the family drama is George Fairchild’s weak marriage to Robbie. Robbie comes from humble beginnings, and George’s aunts slight her for it. She uses a prior occurrence in which George risks his life on the train tracks to save his niece Maureen as an excuse to try to escape the tension of their class differences, stating he will always care more for the Fairchilds than her. George himself is buckling under the strain of what it means to be a Fairchild. Indeed, his brother Dennis has been dead for ages, but it is Dennis who mysteriously reaps all the family’s love and credit despite his ghostly status through the pages.
Despite the complexity of the subplots I’ve already covered, they only scratch the surface of characters presented and dilemmas agonized over in this book. I haven’t covered Ellen Fairchild, mother to Dabney and Shelley, who is an outsider from Virginia. Her reticence and caring is in such contrast to the Fairchild family’s bright animated ways that an entire book could easily be written on her subtle but strong characterization. The pace is languid. The prose shimmers. The tone makes you think that calamity is always on the horizon yet life hums along at its normal pace. Does this sound like real life to you? It does to me.
Delta Wedding is a psychological portrait of the Southern human condition. More conversation than action and looking to the past more frequently than it looks to the future, this novel proves more than any other Faulkner’s often quoted line about the past never really being past. I have had people complain to me that the book is a little “Faulkneresque”. I use this novel as a litmus test to see who really understands Southern literature and who does not. At it’s core, Delta Wedding is about the balance between belonging and alienation that resides in each one of us.
You can pick up your own copy of Delta Wedding here.
You can read more about Eudora Welty here.