The Member of the Wedding ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
In Carson McCullers’ wonderful, adolescent-angst novel, The Member of the Wedding, Frances “Frankie” Addams is a feisty twelve-year-old girl living in a small Southern town. Too smart for her own good, she is just on the verge of her teen years. Her mother died when she was born, so she just has her father, a preoccupied watch repairman at a jewelry store in town. The time is the 1940s, during World War II, but Frankie has other things on her mind besides war. Her young-adult brother, Jarvis, is marrying a girl named Janice in Winter Hill, a town a hundred miles away. Frankie longs to escape from her dreary, small-town life. She believes that Janice and Jarvis will take her with them after they are married and they will be a threesome. Everybody who knows how the world really works knows that Frankie is about to be seriously disillusioned.
In the absence of a mother, Frankie has Bereniece Sadie Brown to take care of her. Bereniece is an oft-married black lady who has known her share of grief in the world. Her favorite husband, Ludie Maxwell Freeman, died of pneumonia on a winter night, and since then she has been trying, without much success, to find someone to take his place. Bereniece is always kind to Frankie and tries hard to understand her and help her with her loneliness and insecurity.
John Henry West, Frankie’s brightly inquisitive, six-year-old cousin, lives in the neighborhood but is always at Frankie’s house. He eats most of his meals there and spends the night with Frankie a lot in her room, an “enclosed sleeping porch” above the kitchen. Frankie may not want to admit it, but John Henry is her best friend. She tells him to “go home” when she’s had enough of him.
The world is a frightening place for Frankie and we can see that, at age twelve, she has a lot of growing up to do. She has a near-date with a soldier who believes she is older than she is and is forced to hit him in the head with a water pitcher in his hotel room to discourage his advances. When she goes by bus to the wedding of Janice and Jarvis in Winter Hill with her father, Bereniece, and John Henry, she discovers just how disappointing the world—and life in general—can be.
The Member of the Wedding is a delightful novel to read, so beautifully written, by one of the most talented American writers of the twentieth century. It is evocative not only of time (the 1940s) and place (the American South) but also of childhood. What adult hasn’t experienced the terrors of growing up in an uncertain, frightening world? One of my favorite novels out of the many thousands I’ve read.
Copyright © 2020 by Allen Kopp
4 thoughts on “The Member of the Wedding ~ A Capsule Book Review”
I read the novel as a teen, watch the Julie Harris movie every now and then, and saw the play with Dana Hill (she played one of Clark Grizwald’s kids, Audrey, in one or two ‘National Lampoon’ movies; she died young from her kidneys, I think). One of my top favorites in any of those forms. (Didn’t they remake it like in the 1970’s?) In the JHarris movie, Jarvis and Janice get married in the Addams’ house, and the minister is Hugh Beaumont (“Ward Cleaver”). He had been a real minister before acting. The story will never disappear. Timeless. Thank you for the review, Allen.
Also a fan of the Julie Harris movie. In the 1980s they did it for television with Pearl Bailey as the maid. That was probably the same one with Dana Hill.
The play that Dana Hill starred as Frankie was onstage, and I caught it on A&E back when A&E actually played programs that fell under the category of ‘Arts & Entertainment’. I can’t remember if it was Dana Hill or not in the movie re-make on tv. Bradford Dillman as John Henry in the 50’s movie – he was so perfect in that role! One of my all-time favorite lines was when Frankie gives him that doll, and he formally announces: “I will name her Belle!”, then punches it in the face. He made it into young adult roles co-starring with Paul Newman in “Hud” and Warren Beatty in “All Fall Down”. Very sadly, he died when he was around 30. I think he was on his way to or from visiting his wife, who had just had a baby, and he was in a car accident.
Yes, Dana Hill did play Frankie and Pearl Bailey played ‘Bereniece’ in the 1982 tv movie. There was another tv remake in 1997 and I didn’t recognize any of the actors’ names. (Source: IMBD)