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"He stood like a statue, one arm extended toward the west."

Love this passage from Jack Conroy's The Disinherited, especially the way Conroy deftly narrows the focus from the epic sweep of Detroit autoworkers exiting the city as the Great Depression accelerates, to the poignant individual scenes involving the Tennessee-bound family and then the solitary hitchhiker.
As the factories closed or cut their forces and hours, the exodus from the city increased in volume. We lived by the Chicago pike, and had nothing better to do than to watch the procession pass. Some in shiny new sedans, but more in asthmatic antiques, creaking under burdens of furniture, bedding, lares and penates, children, and even Kentucky hound dogs, their long ears flying like banners in the breeze. The children peered out brightly, merry over the prospect of the long trip south.

Not all in cars.

In a driving November rain a man passed the house pulling a heavily loaded coaster wagon and followed by a staggering woman, ineffectually striving to shield a blue-lipped baby from the cold and wet. Ben called them in, fed them, and dried their clothing. The husband had been laid off in Detroit and spent his last penny looking for work, and they were trying to make it home to La Follette, Tenn., still many a weary mile ahead.

I saw a middle-aged man seemingly petrified by the side of the highway. He stood like a statue, one arm extended toward the west. His face was set and hopeless like a stone mask. Begging a ride, he did so proudly; no energetic thumbing and appealing. A battered suitcase rested between his legs. Nobody heeded him. The cars whizzed along the grey concrete and the Winter dusk settled down. Trucks rumbled along disdainfully. A lithe speedster festooned with smart baggage purred by, and the boys inside were singing, sentimentally, "Highways are happy ways when they lead the way home."

A gang of youths in a collegiate Ford, its dilapidation camouflaged by many a chalked wisecrack, spied the immobile figure, and brakes howled to a stop fifty feet away.

"Are you tired of walking?" inquired the lad at the wheel.

"Yes!" cried the man eagerly. He picked up the suitcase and ran briskly toward the car, his frayed overcoat whipping between his legs and hindering him.

"Then run a while!" retorted the comedian, quickly throwing the car into gear for a flying start. Laughter drifted back.

A single oath which seemed to plumb the nadir of despair broke from the man's lips. He walked steadily westward, as though drawn by a magnet.
Incidentally, La Follette is in north-central Tennessee - looking at the map, it appears to be in a fairly remote area, and would have been even more remote back in 1930. In other words, a long and arduous journey from Detroit. Which makes the fate of the wagon-towing family even more desperate.

November 24, 2009 in Books | Permalink