Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Reanimating the Trope of the Talking Book in Alice Walker's "Strong Horse Tea"

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

Reanimating the Trope of the Talking Book in Alice Walker's "Strong Horse Tea"

Article excerpt

In a 1970 essay, "The Black Writer and the Southern Experience," Alice Walker qualifies her refusal to "romanticize the Southern black country life" of her upbringing, recalling that while she "hated it, generally ... no one could wish for a more advantageous heritage than that bequeathed to the black writer in the South: a compassion for the earth, a trust in humanity beyond our knowledge of evil, and an abiding love of justice" (21). Essays published in the 1980s, such as "Am I Blue" and "Everything is a Human Being," and her more recent response to the events of September 11, 2001, Sent by Earth, coalesce that southern, rural-bred "compassion for the earth" into a recognizable ecocritical world view. In "The Universe Responds," for example, Walker unabashedly stakes the richness of human creativity to the health of the natural world: "we are connected to [animals] at least as intimately as we are connected to trees," she says. "Without plant life human beings could not breathe.... Without free animal life ... we will lose the spiritual equivalent of oxygen. Magic, intuition, sheer astonishment at the forms the Universe devises in which to express life--itself--will no longer be able to breath in us" (191-92).

In this regard, Walker explicitly diverges from the anti-pastoral strain in the African-American literary tradition that, since the time of Frederick Douglass, has "expressed a profound antipathy toward the ecological niches usually focused on in ecocriticism: pastoral space and wilderness" (Bennett 208). Reacting to the early black experience of the rural South, in a landscape distorted by slavery's crimes and the decades of violence and racism following its abolition, the tradition, Michael Bennett argues, has tended to view "the relative safety of the urban environment" as a more promising landscape of economic opportunity and social justice denied in more conservative and isolated, rural enclaves (198).

Walker's 1967 short story, "Strong Horse Tea," appears, in many ways, to echo this anti-pastoral tradition. (1) Her brutally poor protagonist, Rannie Mae Toomer, literally lives in a pasture surrounded by the "fat whitefolks' cows and an old gray horse and a mule" (462). (2) And there is no hint of pastoral romance in the image of the "fat winter fly" roosting on the forehead of her child, Snooks, who will ultimately die of "double pneumonia and whooping cough" (459). However, Walker refuses to privilege a contrasting and more urban, albeit southern, domain: the narrative tension of the short story is, in fact, created by Rannie's waiting for "a real doctor" from town to arrive with his presumably superior arsenal of cures; having refused the help of the community witchwoman, Aunt Sarah, and the "swamp magic" she proffers, Rannie realizes too late that a more urban world, the traditional anti-pastoralist preference, has ignored her plight and abandoned her to the meager resources of her home community (459).

To complicate matters further, however, the story concludes on an apparently anti-pastoral note, with Rannie "slipping and sliding in the mud" of the pasture, soaked to the bone from a tremendous thunderstorm, collecting the only thing, according to Sarah, that stands a chance of reviving Snooks: mare's urine, the strong horse tea of the title (466). (3) That final scene also depicts a come-uppance of sorts for Rannie: as she catches the tea in her flimsy plastic shoe, she discovers "a leak, a tiny crack, at her shoe's front"; with no other recourse, she "stuck her mouth there over the crack, and ... freezing in her shabby wet coat, ran home to give the good and warm strong tea to her baby Snooks" (466). Since Snooks dies while she is in the pasture, Rannie obviously takes the medicine. But in the context of the many polarities that critics have identified--between town/country, folk medicine/white medicine, black roots and heritage/white technological progress--the particular allegiance for which she is being chastened is not so clear. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.