Originally published in 1947, Ann Petry’s classic Country Place depicts a predominantly white community disillusioned by the indignities and corruption of small-town life.
Johnnie Roane returns from four years of military service in World War II to his wife, Glory. They had been married just a year when he left Lennox, Connecticut, where both their families live and work. In his taxi ride home, Johnnie receives foreboding hints that all has not been well in his absence. Eager to mend his fraying marriage, Johnnie attempts to cajole Glory to recommit to their life together. But something sinister has taken place during the intervening yearsan infidelity that has not gone unnoticed in the superficially placid New England town.
Accompanied by a new foreword from Farah Jasmine Griffin on the enduring legacy of Petry’s oeuvre, Country Place complicates and builds on the legacy of a literary celebrity and one of the foremost African American writers of her time.
|Publisher:||Northwestern University Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
ANN PETRY (1908-1997) was a reporter, pharmacist, social worker, and community activist. She illuminated the range of black and white experience in her novels, short stories, and other writing. Her book The Street (1946) was the first novel by an African American woman to sell more than a million copies.
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN is the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African-American Studies at Columbia University.
Read an Excerpt
I have always believed that, when a man writes a record of a series of events, he should begin by giving certain information about himself: his age, where he was born, whether he be short or tall or fat or thin. This information offers a clue as to how much of what a man writes is to be accepted as truth, and how much should be discarded as being the result of personal bias. For fat men do not write the same kind of books that thin men write; the point of view of tall men is unlike that of short men.
Therefore, I hasten to tell you that I am a bachelor; and a medium kind of man — medium tall, medium fat, medium old (I am sixty-five), and medium bald. I am neither a pessimist nor an optimist. I think I have what might be called a medium temperament.
It is only fitting and proper that I should openly admit to having a prejudice against women — perhaps I should say a prejudice against the female of any species, human or animal; and yet, like most of the people who admit to being prejudiced, I am not consistent, for I own a female cat, named Banana. Though I am devoted to her, I am well aware that she is much closer to the primitive than a male cat.
For example, the sight of the town taxi-driver, who is called The Weasel, arouses a kind of fury in her. Her tail swells to twice its normal size and she swats at him with her claws unsheathed. It is true that he dislikes cats, but that does not justify her snarling at him whenever he comes into the store to make a purchase. But like most females she makes no effort to control her emotions.
I see that I have used the words 'town' and 'store' without explaining either the one or the other. I am a druggist and the store is, of course, a drugstore.
In a city a drugstore is all wiggling neon lights and cosmetic bars and aluminum cooking ware — a place full of the hot, greasy smell of hamburgers being cooked in rancid fat.
My drugstore is not like that. It belonged to my father and to my grandfather before him. They installed the old-fashioned ice-cream parlor which remains much as it was in their day. It is separated from the rest of the store by an arched opening. In this separate section there is a fountain. But no stools upholstered in imitation leather, no coffee-makers, no electric grills. There are instead six small, round tables whose slender legs are made of wrought iron, and there are chairs which match the tables.
I make my own fountain sirups: lemon and cherry and orange and all the other flavors. When the chocolate sirup is cooking in a big open pan on the kerosene stove in the backroom, it fills the store with a rich, mouth-watering smell. One rarely finds that smell in drugstores these days — or any of the other smells so typical of this store. For I sell green ginger root and horehound candy and those round hard peppermints called Canadian mints.
But I dispense penicillin and the sulfa drugs, too. I tell you this lest you think of my store as a place untouched by time. On the other hand, I sell kidney plasters for backaches, and an amazing quantity of powdered sulfur, for there are many people in the town who blow sulfur down their children's throats as a remedy for sore throat — and a strangling kind of remedy it is, too.
The town of which I speak is Lennox, Connecticut — a quiet place, a country place, which sits at the mouth of the Connecticut River, at the exact spot where the river empties itself into Long Island Sound. Thus, Lennox is almost surrounded by water, and it is filled with the salt smell of the sea and with the yammering sound of the gulls. At certain seasons of the year, the sky over the town is enlivened by the comings and goings of water birds. For the coves and inlets and creeks that edge the town offer a perfect resting-place for migrant birds.
We have a town green, a large open space in the center of the town, where cows and sheep once grazed. My drugstore faces the green. The Congregational Church is directly across the way from it, on the other side of the green.
The town of Lennox is easy to recognize because of the Gramby House. If you ever take Route 1 to Boston, you will see a great brick house, facing the Post Road, about eighteen miles outside of New London. Motorists refer to it as the 'pink house' because the brick appears to be a delicate pink when the sun shines on it. Whenever this house is spoken of, or written about, in the town, it is called the Gramby House, never the Grambys' house. I do not know why. Perhaps because it is the largest house in Lennox; or because it is the only brick house; or possibly because its occupants, Mrs. Gramby and her son, Meams, were the town's wealthiest citizens. Perhaps for a combination of all three reasons. In any event, the presence of its imposing façade distinguishes this town from all the other villages that are strung along the Boston Post Road.
But like the other small New England towns we have a great increase in population during the summer months. Many refugees from cities spend their vacations here. These summer people leave about the first of September, and with their departure Lennox becomes, to all appearances, a quiet, sleepy village.
I say to all appearances because wheresoever men dwell there is always a vein of violence running under the surface quiet.
Last year, for example, during a period of great 'outrage of weather' (as my friend Mrs. Gramby would have put it) Lennox could hardly have been called a quiet, sleepy village. Many untoward events occurred during, and after, that storm. I think that most of these things would have happened, anyway, but because of the storm they took place sooner than they normally would have.
I am the only druggist in the town of Lennox, and for that reason I believe I am in a better position to write the record of what took place here than almost anyone else. All of the people concerned were customers of mine. I have known them so well, and for so many years, that I can tell you what they loved and what they hated, what they hoped for and what they feared.
I was born in this town, as were many of the people of whom I write. Over the years I have acquired an intimate, detailed knowledge of all of them: Johnnie Roane and his wife, Glory; Mr. and Mrs. Roane, who were Johnnie's mother and father; Mrs. Gramby and her son, Meams; Ed Barrell; The Weasel; Neola; the Portegee; David Rosenberg; and, of course, Lil, who was Mearns Gramby's wife.
In the following pages I have reported what happened to them and how it happened. I have written it in exact chronologic order, even inserting, in the proper place, my own reaction to various happenings. I believe this to be a true account, but truth has many sides, and, as I said before, I am not wholly without bias where females are concerned.
This record of events contains, of course, something of life and something of death, for both are to be found in a country place.CHAPTER 2
I did not see Johnnie Roane when he got off the train at Lennox. Nor was I an eyewitness to what happened afterward.
The Weasel told me of Johnnie's arrival in such detail that I might just as well have been standing on the station platform when Johnnie got off the train, and have looked inside his head as well.
His mother, who is an old friend of mine, told me much of what follows in these pages. In addition I have observed the actions of Johnnie's wife, Glory, for so long a period that I can tell you with a fair degree of accuracy what she thinks about when she wakes up in the morning.
This is how it was:
By the end of September the railroad station at Lennox is deserted and quiet. The summer folk have long since packed away their slacks and shorts and bathing suits and returned to the cities from whence they came; and the town, relieved of their presence, has begun to settle down for a long and peaceful winter.
The Weasel, who drives the town taxi, did not get out of his car when he heard the long whistle that announces the approach of the morning train from New York. He lowered the newspaper he was reading to watch the engine slide into the curve of the track. Then he glanced across at the Catholic cemetery without really seeing it because it had been there so long he would only have become aware of it if for some reason it had disappeared.
When the train stopped, he was absorbed in the newspaper. He was quite nearsighted, so he held the paper close to his eyes, poring over the detail of a hatchet murder case that had occurred in New York.
Thus he lost the opportunity to see young Johnnie Roane swing himself off the train almost before its motion ceased; to see young Johnnie Roane, tall and broad of shoulder, walk along the station platform with his barracks bag slung across his back. Johnnie could not believe that he was in Lennox, whole, all in one piece; and he kept thinking that perhaps he would come to or wake up and find that he was somewhere else; and it showed in his face.
And so young Johnnie Roane, just home from the war, paused on the station platform for a moment, looking around him with an eagerness that took in all the detail of the wooden flooring under his feet, the shape of the boxcars pulled in at the siding in back of the station. And he kept thinking, Glory, Glory, Glory. It has come true; I am here in this town once again; and tonight I shall hold her in my arms.
Then he walked over to the taxi. All he could see of The Weasel was his hands — small hands for a man, silhouetted against the bold headlines of the newspaper. He hesitated, half-expecting the man would sense his presence and lower the paper; and when he didn't, Johnnie tapped on the car window.
The Weasel lowered the newspaper and Johnnie saw his sharp ferret's face, the close-set eyes, an out-of-shape cap turned backward on his head. The cap had been light gray in color, but it was covered with grease marks and darkened from sweat. There was a cigarette behind his ear. He looked Johnnie over carefully before he lowered the car window.
'Where you want to go?' he said, leaning toward him.
'Mrs. Roane's house on the River Road.'
'Okay.' He laid the paper down with a sigh. 'Put your bag in the back.'
Johnnie shoved the barracks bag on the floor of the car, then got in the front seat beside the driver. He didn't remember him. When he left Lennox four years ago, Old Man Crandall drove the town taxi.
A fast freight rumbled past the station, making conversation impossible. Johnnie watched it, reading the names on the cars: Lackawanna, B & O, Chesapeake and Ohio, New York Central —
As the last car disappeared from view, The Weasel started the motor. 'You must be Johnnie, Mrs. Roane's boy. She's been expecting you,' he said.
'Yeah,' Johnnie said. He hoped the little guy wouldn't want to talk. He'd been waiting for this moment for four years and he wanted to hold it close to his chest so he wouldn't lose any of it, not even the smallest detail. It was a long ride out to his mother's house and if the guy was going to talk, none of it would be the way he wanted it. He had planned to look at every last detail, the trees, the houses, the streets; twisting and turning his head so that he could see down the little side roads, so he could swallow the whole place up.
But if the driver was going to run off at the mouth, he'd lose half the stuff he wanted to see; his attention would be diverted and he would not notice the rough wood that formed the station platform; and that the shed was almost laughable because the supports were spindly when you considered the length of roof they had to hold up; and that the station was covered with layers of grime and soot.
He closed one eye and squinted at the station house. Yes, when viewed like that it still bore a great resemblance to the gingerbread house in Hänsel and Gretel. And he let his breath out slowly, softly; because all of it was exactly as he had remembered it. None of it had changed.
With that freight gone he could see the Catholic Church across the tracks. It was just the same, too. No, not quite. It used to be whiter than that. The soot from the trains had turned it as gray as the station.
As he looked at the church, he almost smiled, remembering how the kids who lived in this neighborhood used to scuttle past the cemetery even in broad daylight. They called it the Irish graveyard and they swore the tombstones rocked and moved when they walked by. Of course there was a fast train called the East Wind which roared past the station just about the time school was out and it may have set up a vibration that made the stones move.
In any case, neither kids nor grownups walked by here at night if they could help it; because restless Irish ghosts were alleged to rise and walk on dark nights. And on nights when the moon was full, they were supposed to grow so uneasy that you could hear their pickaxes on the track, and, faintly down the wind, the murmur of their voices.
It was, now that he thought about it, a mighty queer place to build a church.
'Say,' he said to the driver. 'Has that church always been there?'
'Far's I know,' The Weasel said, indifferently.
'I mean was the railroad built before the church?'
'Why would anybody put a church by a railroad track?'
The Weasel's eyes came at him sideways. 'Wasn't you born in this town?'
'Ain't that church always been there?'
'Yes. But I've been away from here for a long time.' The driver's beady little eyes stayed on his, making him feel the necessity for further explanation. 'I just never thought about it before. The church was always there as far back as I can remember and I suppose I took it for granted. You know. It was there, and I never thought about things like that. Looking at it just now it struck me as a strange place for a church.'
The Weasel nodded. 'Know what you mean. After you ain't seen something for a while you see things in it you didn't know was there. Happens to everybody.'
He backed the car into the road that led to the town. Then he glanced at Johnnie in the mirror and said: 'You must a forgot Lennox don't like Catholics much. That was the only piece of land they could buy. When the railroad went through, a lot of Irish come here and laid track and stuff like that. Then they wanted a church, and this here piece of land by the tracks was the only piece for sale in the whole town. So that's where they built her.'
'Can't they buy land now?'
'Oh, I wouldn't say that.' The Weasel grinned. 'But somehow there ain't never been none for sale on the main street where the Episcopals and the Congregationals got their churches.'
It was like a faint cloud over the sun, so that you saw houses and trees in the distance, not clearly but blurred a little, darkened where they had been bright; like fog over a curve in a road when you wanted to see it whole and couldn't; because for the first time it occurred to Johnnie that perhaps nothing was ever the same, certainly not exactly as you had remembered it. Not that the thing itself changed, but that you changed, and therefore you could no longer find what you thought was there.
He had seen that church there by the track for years and accepted its position, never questioned why it was there because he had looked at it with a boy's eyes. And the eyes of a boy did not see what a man's eyes saw. So, of course, there would be other things about Lennox that he had either forgotten or had never really seen.
He began to remember all the things he had disliked about the town; it was not what the driver had said that brought them back, because he had not approved or disapproved of the location of the small, humble-looking church with its tombstones clustered about it. But the sly, satisfied smile that still lingered on his face was like a wink, a nudge in the ribs.
Thus he began to remember the gossip that went on in the postoffice, the general store, the drugstore, outside the churches after the service on Sundays. The smile on the face of the little man driving the car was typical of the town's smugness, its satisfaction with itself, its sly poking fun at others.
He shifted his feet on the floor of the car. They were turning into the main street; and this was not the way he had planned to view it, with his mind only half on it because he was upset and vaguely uneasy. Instead of enjoying the sight of this familiar street, he was remembering that he had wanted to leave the town that first year he and Glory were married. But she had objected.
And he was wanting the same thing now; because the town — and this little man represented it and what came out of his mouth was the thinking of the town — the town wasn't big enough to hold him any more. He wanted to live some place where when you got off a train the taxi-driver repeated the address out of the corner of his mouth; and didn't know who you were, let alone that your mother had been expecting you; and really didn't give a damn except whether or not you could pay the fare.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Country Place"
Copyright © 1947 Ann Petry.
Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
First published in 1948 and again in 1971, this edition of Ann Petry's novel Country Place was published by Northwestern University Press. This is a classic look at the lives and world of Connecticut women in the time of World War II, where women were the ones who waited. We look at what you might make of this waiting time, what it takes from you, what is left for you at the end of the conflict. I think life is fairer in this day and age where participation in the War Machine by both sexes is accepted and perhaps expected. I like to think the Glory and her mother in this novel are caricatures or extreme exceptions. I have never met anyone even similar to Glory, and certainly never a Lil. Thank goodness. But I can see where the social mores and expectations of the northeast in the 1940s could produce them. Country Place is a slice of life in small-town Connecticut at the end of World War II. There were limited telephone communications, limited local newspapers and no internet or social media to expand the world Ann Petry and her peers lived in, and this is an interesting look into that world. I can happily recommend Country Place to my family and friends and hope that Northwestern University Press will bring forward other works by this author. I received a free electronic copy of this classic novel from Netgalley, Ann Petry and Northwestern University Press in exchange for an honest review. Thank you all for sharing your hard work with me.