Children On Their Birthdays by Truman Capote, 1948
The magic trick:
Turning one of his seemingly cartoonish characters of early in the story into a complex, well-rounded protagonist by story’s end
We’re off to Alabama this week.
This is one of Capote’s most famous short stories, with good reason. You likely won’t be surprised to find that it’s built around the portrait of a weirdo. His characters are always somewhat extreme or odd. Grotesque, they call it, right?
Miss Bobbit, the young girl who storms into the story’s small town and wins the boys’ hearts while confounding the adults with her eccentric ambition, is certainly an indelible character.
But what struck me as I read on is how much the story really is a showcase for Billy Bob. I took him as cartoonish early on. He’s smitten with Miss Bobbit, cutting down roses and sulking in a tree. I assumed he was the non-specific male foil for her.
Turns out it’s almost the other way around. Miss Bobbit, unique and memorable, is actually mostly static It’s Billy Bob who reveals more and more of his character through his love for her. He’s not a cartoon. He’s sullen and layered and complicated and thoughtful and sensitive and literary.
What’s more, we get one of the most beautiful paragraphs in short story history to sum up this character transition (see below).
And that’s quite a trick on Capote’s part.
Since Monday, it has been raining buoyant summer rain shot through with sun, but dark at night and full of sound, full of dripping leaves, watery chimings, sleepless scuttlings. Billy Bob is wide-awake, dry-eyed, though everything he does is a little frozen and his tongue is as stiff as a bell tongue. It has not been easy for him, Miss Bobbit’s going. Because she’d meant more than that. Than what? Than being thirteen years old and crazy in love. She was the queer things in him, like the pecan tree and liking books and caring enough about people to let them hurt him. She was the things he was afraid to show anyone else. And in the dark the music trickled through the rain: won’t there be nights when we will hear it just as though it were really there? And afternoons when the shadows will be all at once confused, and she will pass before us, unfurling across the lawn like a pretty piece of ribbon? She laughed to Billy Bob; she held his hand, she even kissed him. “I’m not going to die,” she said. “You’ll come out there, and we’ll climb a mountain, and we’ll all live there together, you and me and Sister Rosalba.” But Billy Bob knew it would never happen that way, and so when the music came through the dark he would stuff the pillow over his head.
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