Barn Burning by William Faulkner

image“His father turned, and he followed the stiff black coat, the wiry figure walking a little stiffly from where a Confederate provost’s man’s musket ball had taken him in the heel on a stolen horse thirty years ago, followed the two backs now, since his older brother had appeared from somewhere in the crowd, no taller than the father but thicker, chewing tobacco steadily, between the two lines of grim-faced men and out of the store and across the worn gallery and down the sagging steps and among the dogs and half-grown boys in the mild May dust, where as he passed a voice hissed:
“Barn burner!”

Do you remember being a child? More importantly, do you remember how you perceived the world – the way you interpreted events as an attachment to your parents and family, taking cues from them? In the paragraph above and throughout Barn Burning you are Sarty Snopes, trying to make sense of a difficult world. Your dad is Abner, and you are doing your best to believe he is a good man.

You are wrong, but maybe not. Maybe if you want it bad enough, and hope hard enough your dad will be a different man. Maybe even now, as an adult remembering those childhood impressions it is still possible to rewrite everything.

Faulkner was a master of interiors and keenly understood the human heart. He surely had Sarty in mind when he wrote in his 1948 story “Intruder in the Dust”:

“The past isn’t gone. It isn’t even past. It’s all now you see. Yesterday won’t be over until tomorrow and tomorrow began ten thousand years ago. For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin…”

Abner Snopes, your dad, is a barn burner. He’s poor, downtrodden and bitter, drifting from one thankless migrant labor job to another, dragging you and the rest of family in tow. Your mother struggles to bring normalcy to daily family life and you convince yourself that this time will be different. Sooner or later, life has to be different because this can’t be what life is.

Faulkner’s readers were fresh from the Great Depression and easily related to Sarty. Here’s a dirt poor young boy, trying to be a man. Though outcast by society, he’s honorable and finally found that more important than loyalty. Something had to change and the only thing Sarty could change was himself.

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