This edition of The Grass Harp includes A Tree of Night and other short stories. The stories originally came out around 1950. The Grass Harp is the best known and, in my opinion, the best written, most complete story. It’s a coming of age story told from the point of view of an orphaned boy, Collin Fenwick, who lives with his two aunts. His is a reflection on a golden time from age of 12 to 16 and his love for his aunt Dolly. Dolly adores the color pink, sweet treats and is a loving and simple soul. She is older than Verena, but Verena is head of the household and has a reputation in town for being tough in business and tight with money. Dolly and Catherine, the maid who has been with the sisters since their youth, are close friends, and with Catherine’s and Collin’s assistance, Dolly concocts a secret formula for dropsy that she sells to local clients. The trouble begins when Verena sees the profitability of this venture and tries to build it into a genuine business. Dolly, Catherine and Collin run away from home and live in a treehouse in the woods for a short time, attracting attention and support from some other locals but ultimately leading to a showdown with Verena and local law enforcement. It’s a poignant reflection on family, loss, love and growing up.
Character development in The Grass Harp is more complete than in the other stories. In 100 pages, you get fairly well developed background on the main characters plus a host of delightful and fascinating supporting characters including the retired judge Charlie Cool who joins them in the treehouse, the sheriff and his cohort, and a traveling family of preachers. The stories in A Tree of Night, on the other hand, lack this development and are much darker than The Grass Harp. They are set in the South or New York. Some provide a sort of slice of southern life, with some humor but also showing eccentricities and a darker side of small town life. Some are sad reflections on loneliness and depression, particularly the New York stories. Every story involves an intruder of sorts, someone unknown who insinuates him or herself into the main character’s life, usually with negative consequences. Some of the intruders are children and they can be downright sinister. I found these stories interesting but it seemed they ended rather abruptly and really aren’t of the same caliber as The Grass Harp.
Capote’s writing is arresting in all of the stories and that is what makes them so hard to put down and worth picking up. Character assessments are especially incisive. Capote describes Verena’s business acumen: “… money was like a wildcat whose trail she stalked with a trained hunter’s muffled step and an eye for every broken twig.” The local barber/town gossip Amos Legrand: “A little monkeyman who had to stand on a box to cut your hair, he was agitated and chattery as a pair of castanets.” Capote also makes some interesting philosophical statements in his stories, such as “…dreams are the mind of the soul and the secret truth about us…” from Master Misery; and “…if you are not admired no one will take the trouble to disapprove…” from Children on Their Birthdays. Some of the loveliest prose can be found in The Grass Harp. “Below the hill grows a field of high Indian grass that changes color with the seasons: go to see it in the fall, late September, when scarlet shadows like firelight breeze over it and the autumn winds strum on its dry leaves sighing human music, a harp of voices.”
Reading The Grass Harp and Capote’s other short stories was a most pleasurable literary experience and has made me want to spend more time with Southern literature. The mix of humor and nostalgia with social critique and a certain melancholy is a powerful and arresting combination in the hands of masters like Capote, Flannery O’Connor and Harper Lee.