Kneel To The Rising Sun by Erskine Caldwell, 1935
The magic trick:
Never moving the narrative in any predicted or expected ways
Sometimes you get to a story like this in the anthology you’re reading and you expect disappointment. I didn’t know the story, didn’t even know the author. Didn’t expect much. Whoops. This one floored me. Absolutely knocked me out.
Firstly, its tension begins in the opening paragraph and only intensifies throughout the narrative. Reading this story physically tightens your stomach muscles. It’s better than crunches as a daily exercise. Secondly, it never goes where you think it will, and that’s really the key.
I don’t want to spoil the ending too much, so those still wanting to read the story: beware. I will say that there is a certain prescribed story arc and rhythm I think we readers have come to expect. This story never follows it. Or rather it never finishes the arcs or the clichés in the expected ways. It surprises from start to finish and that bravery makes it one of the most memorable stories I’ve ever read. And that’s quite a trick on Caldwell’s part.
Arch stood back and watched the kerosene flicker out on the ground.
“You know good and well why he got eaten up by the fattening hogs,” Clem said, standing his ground. “He was so hungry he had to get up out of bed in the middle of the night and come up here in the dark trying to find something to eat. Maybe he was trying to find the smokehouse. It makes no difference, either way. He’s been on short-rations like everybody else working on your place, and he was so old he didn’t know where else to look for food except in your smokehouse. You know good and well that’s how he got lost u’ here in the dark and fell in the hog pen.”
The kerosene had died out completely. In the last faint flare, Arch had reached down and grabbed up the singletree that had been lying on the ground where Lonnie had dropped it.
Arch raised the singletree over his head and struck with all his might at Clem. Clem dodged, but Arch drew back again quickly and landed a blow on his arm just above the elbow before Clem could dodge it. Clem’s arm dropped to his side, dangling lifelessly.
I enjoyed reading your analysis of Kneeling to the Rising Sun. I agree that the tension is chilling and I was indeed dismayed by the way the characters reacted and the story played out.
I wasn’t surprised though. I knew Erskine Caldwell by reputation and through novels like Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre. I also knew that he was an advocate of a popular social movement known as eugenics. In the early days of the 20th Century there was serious speculation that the power of science could help create a better society. These ideas lost popularity in the US but grew in popularity in Germany for one.
Lonnie is portrayed as a feckless coward willing to sacrifice the health of his family and his own basic needs rather than ask the boss “Mr. Arch, I . . . ” for a leftover piece of lean meat. This is the portrayal of poor Southerners Caldwell was criticized for. The story seems to be asking, “wouldn’t the world be better off without scum like Lonnie?” I can’t avoid reading into the story an argument for eugenics.
When I first read the story I was aware of Erskine Caldwell and I expected to find some connection to Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun, but there was no internal clue to point that way. There were several references to the sun coming up soon and a new day beginning. In the end, Lonnie kneels to the new order and backs away submissively.
Thanks! I’d not read anything by Caldwell going in, and I was floored by the quality of the story. I should follow up and find something else of his. The eugenics stuff is interesting slash terrifying. If that’s the message here, well, I don’t even know. I need to re-read now with this in mind.