The Critics’ Corner
Where is the Center in “The Boy Next Door”?
by Don Webb
“The Boy Next Door” begins in issue 508.
What is Ron Van Sweringen’s “The Boy Next Door” all about? Answering that question may clear away perplexity about the adventures of Erthelene and little Billy Joe Smith.
First, though, what is the story not about? The synopsis that heads each initial chapter in issues 508-515 reads: “Things are not always black or white. Sometimes they are the color of love.” The sentiment fits the story accurately, and yet it can be misleading. Despite the setting, the culture of segregation in the Deep South in the late 1940’s has relatively little to do with what actually happens in the story.
Does the story depict racism? The closest approach to it is in the thoughts of Erthelene herself, in chapter 8:
Sheriff Roberts nodded to Uncle Mabus as he and his deputy approached the front porch. “Good day, Mabus,” he said, removing his sunglasses to reveal the bluest eyes Erthelene had ever seen. The hair showing under his hat was graying and she noticed his red, sunburned neck. For some reason she couldn’t help but wonder if he’d ever worn a white sheet over it.
Erthelene is made to think that the Sheriff is a redneck and that he might have worn the hood and bedsheet costume of the Ku Klux Klan. Historically, that was a real worry. However, Erthelene’s idle thought ultimately has no place in the story; Sheriff Roberts is unfailingly polite to everyone. In fact, everyone else is, as well, with three exceptions, which prove quite incidental.
In chapter 1, a Salvation Army clerk illustrates a matter of etiquette for the sake of local color:
“Here, girl,” the woman said, shoving it toward Erthelene. “This is a freebie.”
Erthelene didn’t like being called “girl.” She was forty-four. She didn’t like the forced smile on the woman’s face when she said it, either. They both knew what it really was: a white woman’s way of reminding a black woman that she was black.
“Freebie” is an anachronism and signals contrivance. Deliberate rudeness on the part of a Salvation Army employee, of all people, is quite out of character.
“Girl” is used again in the same sense by a policeman, in chapter 3, but he hardly needs to be defensive about the authority of his uniform. Otherwise, “girl” appears again in chapters 7, 10, 11, 12 and 14. And in every case it is used by Uncle Mabus. After chapter 3, the use of “girl” as a racial slur is forgotten; it becomes a term of affection.
What of the social worker, who comes to take Billy Joe to Otilla Harrison? She’s depicted as heartless, in chapter 8, because she forbids her driver to stop to take care of the dog when it is hit by the car. But she is not depicted as racist. All told, she can say she is only doing her job, and a thankless one at that.
Does race really have much to do with the story? There are references scattered throughout the story to characters’ being “black,” but the information is almost always irrelevant. Two exceptions:
In chapter 11, Erthelene and Uncle Mabus appear by appointment at Miss Harrison’s front door.
“Sorry, ma’am, but its customary for colored folks to come around to the back door,” the confused man answered.
Erthelene rightly takes offense, since she is an invited guest, but the situation is resolved by the timely appearance of Miss Harrison. The byplay serves to depict Erthelene’s pride, but that is where it ends.
Crazy Charley, in chapter 16, represents an extreme case:
“Crazy Charley, it’s Big John from Black Water Lake. You remember me. We fished together one day last year. I was lost and you showed me the way home.”
“Reckon so,” Crazy Charley replied. “A fella big and black as you is hard to forget. Come over by the fire so’s I can see better.”
Crazy Charley goes out of his way to say that Big John is black, which the readers and the characters already know. But what color is Crazy Charley? Is he black? White? Neither? It is entirely plausible that Crazy Charley would be an American Indian.
What is the role of segregation in the story? A bit of character description in chapter 1 says it all:
Erthelene had dealt with that old cherry all of her life, just like she dealt with chiggers in the grass and white boys who pulled their dusty jeans tight to show her a hard-on as she passed on her way home from work.
Race relations are a nuisance like biting insects, or tasteless, like boys acting out a grotesque comedy. In real life the humiliation was pervasive, systematic and impersonal.
Erthelene and her friends could just as easily be poor whites as far as this story is concerned.
* * *
What is the story about? The title tells us: “the boy next door,” namely Billy Joe Smith. He has been abandoned by his father and is neglected by his mother, who is apparently a prostitute.
When Billy Joe’s mother is killed in a traffic accident, Erthelene takes Billy Joe in, presumably out of the goodness of her heart, to prevent his being sent to an orphanage, which is presumably a bad thing. Erthelene’s motivation is axiomatic; it has to be taken for granted.
Erthelene takes Billy Joe with her to live in a cabin near Black Water Swamp, where they will presumably be safely beyond the notice of curious townspeople. The move is quite practical under the circumstances.
But the center of the story shifts to Otilla Harrison, who is in effect a rich widow. Her fiancé was killed in the war; she has remained unmarried and childless. The fact that Billy Joe is a white boy living with black people is a pretext for Otilla Harrison’s intervention. But segregation is not made an issue in and of itself; Otilla Harrison could have intervened with as much justification if Erthelene were white.
The story’s real tension, then, is: With whom will Billy Joe be happier? With the people he has become attached to? Or as the son Otilla Harrison has never had?
Billy Joe’s decision to return to Erthelene’s cabin might seem to be a choice between love and wealth. But it is not. Billy Joe decides to run away from Otilla Harrison’s home when he learns that she plans to send him away to school.
Billy Joe has already lost one set of parents. He has now lost Erthelene and her friends, as far as he can tell. Now he stands to lose Otilla Harrison, as well. That is one abandonment too many for him.
The story is really that of a poor boy born in the South, one who loses his father unaccountably and is raised by a well-meaning mother on the “wrong side of the tracks.” He does not fit in with what amounts to high society. And at the end, his dreams come true:
“Wow,” Billy Joe whispered in Snake Dog’s ear, “did you hear that? I’m getting a father.”
The wish-fulfillment fantasy is resolved. Race and segregation are incidental to the real story, one that perhaps remains to be told: the redemption of an abandoned child.
Copyright © 2013 by Don Webb