Thursday, May 14, 2015

Aunt Clo in Ernest J. Gaines's "Just Like a Tree"


Ernest J. Gaines's "Just Like a Tree" concludes his short story collection Bloodline (1968).  It originally appeared in the Sewanne Review, and it tells the story of a gathering of people in the quarters as the say goodbye to the ninety-nine year old fixture Aunt Fe as her daughter and son-in-law plan to take her away to the North so she will not have to endure anything like the recent bombing that occurred in the quarters. Readers do not hear directly from Aunt Fe in the story, even though the story is essentially about her. Instead, multiple narrators from young to old tell the events of the gathering, similar to Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, which Gaines says served as influence, along with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, for the story.

Today, I would just like to focus on one section of the story, Aunt Clo's. All of the narrators in the story focus on the events occurring in the room, moving to the past and looking to the future periodically. Aunt Clo, unlike the other narrators, does not provide any action that necessarily moves the narrative forward; her section is more philosophical and metaphorical, talking about Aunt Fe as a tree that is currently being uprooted and dragged reluctantly from her home. The section recalls, in many ways, Miss Jane Pittman's musings on the oak tree she speaks with in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. More similarities exist between Aunt Fe and Miss Jane. One interviewer even asked Gaines about their similar characteristics. Gaines replied that when he started Pittman he realized it was too much like Aunt Fe because others told the story, not allowing Jane to speak for herself. He said, "I've got the same characters telling the same thing. All I've done with Aunt Fe is that instead of her dying, I tell everything that happened before she died" (49-50). Looking at each work closely, similarities appear, but that is not my entire focus here.

Aunt Clo compares Aunt Fe to a tree that has a chain wrapped around it then someone is just a "jecking and jecking, and then shifting the chain little bit and jecking and jecking in some direction, and then shifting it some mo' and jecking and jecking in that direction" trying to wrestle the roots out of the ground so it can be moved (235). When the person extricates the tree from the ground, a big hole remains with a "piece of the taproot still way down in it--a piece you won't never get out no matter if you dig till doomsday" (236). The taproot grows deep, and removing it becomes difficult. Aunt Fe's daughter and son-in-law plan to take her away, to the North, but her roots run deep. Aunt Fe becomes like others who have left. They leave holes behind, but the taproot remains. Aunt Clo continues by explaining that once the tree leaves, two holes remain: "You get a big hole in the ground, sir; and you get another big hole in the air where the lovely branches been all these years. Yes, sir, that's what you get. The holes, sir, the holes. Two holes, sir, you can't never fill no matter how hard you try" (236). The holes, of course, represent what Aunt Fe will leave behind. She will not physically be in the quarters anymore, and the people who loved her will not see her again.

While the holes appear, the taproot remains. When the trees gets dragged to the North, Aunt Clo says that the person taking the tree has to find a space for it. She says, "You look in this corner and you look in that corner, but no corner is good. She kin o'stand in the was no matter where you set her. So finally, sir, you say, 'I just stand her up a little while and see, and if it don't work out, if she keep getting in the way, I guess we'll just have to take her to the dump'" (237). This quote, which ends Aunt Clo's section, is full of themes that I do not have time to explore in this post. The tree, like Aunt Fe, becomes a representation of the past, and specifically the South, that upon entering the North must be done away with or placed in a corner. Gaines speaks about this in his own experiences when he went to California in "A Very Big Order: Reconstructing Identity" and James, a Northerner, exemplifies it in his section in "Just Like A Tree."

At the end of the story, everyone has left Aunt Fe's house and Aunt Lou helps her get ready for bed. As she watched Aunt Fe, Aunt Lou notices "her making some kind o' jecking motion there, but I feel she crying 'cause this her last night here, and 'cause she got to leave ever'thing behind" (249). Important here is the word "jecking." Aunt Clo uses the word repeatedly in her section while she describes the tree being removed from the ground and transported North. Here, Aunt Lou uses it to describe Aunt Fe before she goes to bed, and ultimately dies. This key word links the image Aunt Clo speaks about with Aunt Fe. Unlike the tree, whose taproot remains, Aunt Fe doesn't leave in the end. She goes to bed and passes away in her sleep.

No matter how hard someone tries to relinquish the past, it remains. This in not necessarily a bad thing. The past is important, all of its tribulations and triumphs. When speaking about his grandmother's death, Gaines talks about the fact that "all she talked about was the South" (50). His grandmother maintained her insurance payments so she could be buried back home in the South because that mattered to her. Gaines continues,
When she died, there were no arguments as far as I was concerned that Momma was coming back to the place where she grew up. And there were other people in the family who said, "Well she's dead now, does it matter?" But to me it mattered and to her it mattered. She never did say, 'Send my body back home' or anything like that. We never did talk about death like that, but we knew. She'd say, "I'd like to be buried there" you know, but she never said "Send my body there." She'd just say "I'd like to be buried home." (52)
Even though his grandmother passed well after the story first appeared, Gaines's comments here reflect Aunt Clo's description of Aunt Fe. As well, they describe his thoughts regarding the continual pull of Louisiana and the South to his own writing and life.

What do you think of "Just Like A Tree"? Let us know in the comments below.

Gaines, Ernest J. "Just Like A tree." Bloodline. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1976. 221-249. Print.
Ingram, Forrest and Barbara Steinberg. "On the Verge: An Interview with Ernest J. Gaines." Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Ed. John Lowe. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995. 39-55. Print.

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