Eudora Welty: Losing Battles
If there were any a doubt, this novel shows that Eudora Welty’s forte is as a short story writer. Though there is a plot to this novel – who are Gloria’s parents? what will happen to Judge and Mrs. Moody? what will happen to Jack Renfro and his family? – the plot, as in most of the best novels, is relatively unimportant.
It is Granny Vaughn’s 90th birthday in Banner, Mississippi in the 1930s and the whole clan is gathering to celebrate. The first issue, is will Jack show up? Jack is currently doing time in Parchman prison for assaulting Curly Stovall, the store owner. However, as we find out, as the story is gradually told – with numerous interruptions, commentaries, corrections and additions – the situation is, as always, more complicated than it seems. Indeed, it is the very act of the telling of the story that shows us that Welty is not going to be giving us a novel with a linear plot. For Welty, and for the Renfro extended family, it is the oral tradition that is important. It binds their family, as everyone has a point of view or amendment to make to the story-telling before it finally comes out.
Of course, the story of Jack and Curly is not the only short story within the novel we are treated to. The origins of Gloria, Jack’s wife, and the tale of Julia Mortimer, recently deceased, who was the school teacher and was simultaneously feared and admired are also important. Julia Mortimer provides a thread through the novel. She came to the area, set up a school, stuck with it, educating a future governor and other important people, brought Gloria in, helped Judge Moody, the judge who sentenced Jack to Parchman and who turns up at Granny Vaughn’s birthday by mistake (in fact, as we later find out, on his way to Julia Mortimer) and, finally, in her death, causes more concern for the people of Banner. She may be said to be, despite them, the one who brought civilisation to Banner.
But it is not the plot that you will read this novel for. It is for the characters and their stories, taken directly from the oral tradition. The whole family, from Granny Vaughn down to Lady May Renfro, Jack and Gloria’s fourteen month old daughter, who is starting to make her presence felt, even though she cannot yet speak, contributes to the often disorganised reunion.
First published 1970 by Random House
Reprinted 1998 by Library of America