The Grass Harp was the latest read from my A Capote Reader, part of a superb collection; although I believe it has been often published separately as a slim little book. The Grass Harp is a beautifully written novella, a coming of age tale with some wonderfully memorable characters.
In a small southern town, a group of misfits come together to learn about love and what it means to belong to one another. The narrator of the tale is Collin Fenwick; an orphaned boy living with two eccentric ageing aunts. He is particularly attached to the elder aunt Dolly who makes her own medicine, and who is herself very attached to her friend Catherine, the elderly black woman who lives in a small house behind the main house, and who claims to be of Native American descent.
“Despite the generally beneficial effect Dolly’s medicine appeared to have on those who sent for it, letters once in a while came saying Dear Miss Talbo we won’t be needing any more dropsy cure on account of poor Cousin Belle (or whoever) passed away last week bless her soul. Then the kitchen was a mournful place; with folded hands and nodding heads my two friends bleakly recalled the circumstances of the case, and Well, Catherine would say, we did the best we could Dollyheart, but the good Lord had other notions.”
Aunt Dolly and her sister Verena argue about the medicine recipe, when Verena’s announces plans to mass produce it – Dolly, Catherine and young Collin start walking, eventually retreating to a tree house in a chinaberry tree. Verena calls in the sheriff to get her sister and nephew down and various local residents come along to call up to them and make their disapproval plain. Setting themselves against Verena and other residents of the town, who try to get them down, the three tree dwellers are soon joined by Riley Henderson and Judge Cool. Observing life from above, the tree dwellers draw together with Collin and Riley becoming friends, and Judge Cool – a kind wise man, in conflict with his grown up children, mourning his wife, – begins to have some romantic feelings for Dolly.
“Calling to each other, hooting like owls loose in the daytime, we worked all morning in opposite parts of the wood. Towards afternoon, our sacks fat with skinned bark, tender, torn roots, we climbed back into the green web of the China tree and spread the food. There was good creek water in a mason jar, or if the weather was cold a thermos of hot coffee, and we wadded leaves to wipe our chicken-stained, fudge-sticky fingers. Afterwards, telling fortunes with flowers, speaking of sleepy things, it was as though we floated through the afternoon on the raft in the tree; we belonged there, as the sun-silvered leaves belonged, the dwelling whippoorwills.”
An incident with local residents leads to Catherine being arrested – much to everyone’s fury, but the tree squatters remain, until another more serious skirmish leads Judge Cool to wisely advise they vacate the tree – and in doing so each have relationships to mend, but powerful friendships have been created.
Capote’s writing is elegiac and memorable; this novella makes for utterly perfect summer reading, the warmth and sunlight pours off the pages and I rather wished it could have been much longer. Capote was obviously interested in misfits and outsiders, they seem to populate the small amount of his work I have read so far, but there also appears to be an autobiographical element to this story, and I have read that The Grass Harp was his favourite novel – although there have been criticisms of its sentimentality. Sentimentality aside – I don’t think it is overly so – I absolutely loved it.
My Capote summer reading will continue next month with Breakfast at Tiffany’s (a re-read for me) and some more short stories. However I also intend to read the other pieces in A Capote Reader and I need to purchase A Summer Crossing to read during August. I am now a firm Capote fan.