My estimation for this book continues to grow as I read and re-read throughout my life. I first read it in college, and the complexity of Faulkner’s portrayal of interior lives and families was about all I could handle in one of his novels. I could also handle the stark portrayals of race and gender in something like Light in August as well. But this book which attempts to complexly show interiority of white and Black characters, how those characters interact not only within a town in the South, but also how their relation to each other through shared lineage, some 50-60 years after the war (the Black side of the family of course being the product of the rape of Black women under slavery).
The book is seven stories, or more so five stories and two novellas. We begin with the story of a bet being the reason why slaves change hands. We learn about the cruel and wanton disregard of human life and family, and worse how it’s treated not only as sport, but as a game. This sets the tone for the future stories. We get two similar stories about how white and Black sharecroppers interact with their labor, their connection to the land, and most importantly, their connection to their white landowners. Placed within the context of forced labor in Alabama and Mississippi in the 1880s and 1890s (something Faulkner knew plenty about), these two stories help to deepen our understanding.
The novella “The Bear” is of course the centerpiece of the whole novel, and has been published separately several times. In this story, we begin with a series of bear hunts in the McCaslin family. Later, we get a the research the boy Ike makes into his family history as he tries to sort through the confused family relations he learns about as a child. This second section is so starkly different from the beginning but really speaks to the way that certain kinds of information understanding is directly stated (such as how and why to kill a bear) but other parts of life are unspoken and remain hidden.
The novel does this throughout, gives voice and light to the parts of life that are often understood but not always discussed, and when discussed, we realize are much more deeply confusing and complex than they seem from the outside.