BASS 2018: Ron Rash, “The Baptism” from The Southern Review, Autumn 2017

Chagall: “Moses Striking the Rock” (1931)

As with almost all my fiction, this story began with an image: a baptism scene on a frozen river. I sensed the time was the late nineteenth century and that the minister was deeply conflicted about performing the rite. Where the initial image came from I cannot say. It was not derived from anything I’ve ever heard of happening. After finishing the first draft, I realized that my naming the child Pearl established a connection to the Pearl in The Scarlet Letter, but that too was, at least initially, subconscious. My perspective on stories is Jungian. They already exist; thus writers are more transmitters then creators. But how well the story will be told is conscious, a matter of craft.

~ ~ Ron Rash, Contributor Note


Contributor notes – a feature of BASS I greatly enjoy – are a two-edged sword. Sometimes they give me real insight into this mysterious art called writing. Sometimes they confuse me, as if I’d read the wrong story. And sometimes, as here, they do both.

This is one of the shorter and, I thought initially, easiest to read stories in this anthology. The widow Eliza has two daughters to care for, and needs help with her farm, so when bad guy Gunter’s wife hangs herself (there’s a strong hint later that it wasn’t suicide) and he wants to marry her eldest daughter Susanna, that’s just fine with her. Reverend Yates tries to talk her out of it, to no avail, and Susanna later enlists his help in running away to escape the predictable abuse. When Gunter turns his sights on the fourteen-year-old daughter, Eliza again goes along with it, but requires he be baptized first. The town wants Yates to refuse to do the baptism, but he agrees. Everyone is so agreeable in this story. But the river is frozen over. Gunter, not to be denied his third wife, grabs a shotgun and smashes the ice, predictably falling through into the water. Maybe the community could have rescued him, maybe not, but nobody tries too hard, and the town embraces Eliza and Pearl, Susanna returns, and all is well. Except Yates isn’t sure if he maybe sorta should have warned Gunter about the ice.

I had a couple of issues with the story, but I thought I had a handle on it, until Rash’s mention of the “Pearl” connection threw a wrench in the works. In Hawthorne’s book, Pearl was the unrecognized daughter of the town minister, a secret kept by Hester Prynne even as she was shunned by the community for bearing a child while her husband was away. Is this to imply that the Pearl in this story is Reverend Yates’ child as well? I want to reject that idea, only because, well, I don’t like it; it doesn’t fit with the story as I read it. But maybe that’s exactly why I should consider it: how does it change things? It tarnishes Yates, but strengthens his motivation; it also explains why the community, which warmly embraced and cared for Eliza and Pearl after the central incident, didn’t help out this widow with two children before, strengthening her need to allow her children to marry Gunter in the first place.

But none of that was what really struck me about the story. I focused on the sermon Yates preached on the Sunday of the proposed baptism.

The next morning at the service, Gunter sat with Eliza and Pearl on the back pew. Reverend Yates had contemplated altering the sermon he’d written out Thursday night, but found himself to vexed to do so. As planned, he spoke of Moses, and how he’d lead his people to the promised land though unable to enter that place himself. He read the sermon with as little attentiveness as his congregation offered in their listening, Gunter’s presence casting a pall over the whole church.

Moses was denied entrance to the Promised Land because of an incident at Meribah (“conflict”) described in Numbers, Chapter 20: Moses struck a rock instead of speaking to it, as commanded by God, to draw forth water. It’s a passage that’s been expanded upon for millenia by both Jewish and Christian scholars: why such a severe punishment for such a minor lapse, particularly when, in a prior time, Moses was indeed told to strike a rock to obtain water? But, however interesting the commentary is, the fact remains that Moses was excluded.

The striking of the rock and the striking of the ice seem so similar to me, it’s easy to overlook that it’s Gunter who strikes the ice, and he ain’t no Moses. But it’s Yates who bears the guilt of not speaking, as he looks upon a community made whole again by the elimination of Gunter:

To look up on such a sight from his pulpit was surely a sign of God’s grace, Reverend Yates told himself, but on late nights he sometimes contemplated his silence when Marvin Birch offered the cocked weapon. Had his refusal to warn Gunter been a furtherance of God’s will for his own desire to be rid of the man? On such nights the parlour became nothing more than shadows and silence. The manse’s stillness widened beyond the walls into the vastness of the whole Valley.

Damn, he even brings the vastness of the Valley, as Moses was permitted by God to view the Promised Kand from a mountain. But he was still not permitted ot enter, as Yates can’t partake of the peace and harmony the congregation feels. Is his guilt necessary? He seems to think so. But I have to wonder: Gunter comes across as cruel, but not stupid or incompetent; how could he not know breaking the ice was a terrible idea? I’m a city girl, but the dangers of iced-over lakes are well known to me (then again, today we have PSAs). But if this particular guilt is unearned, is there another guilt it masquerades? And we’re back to Pearl.

My blogging buddy Jake didn’t care for this story at all. I had a similar reaction to the first Rash story I read, several years ago. And I’ll admit, I may be wildly overreading in my above comments. I can’t resist a biblical allusion, and sometimes I find one that isn’t actually there (hey, I left the Susanna chapter of Daniel, omitted from the Protestant canon as apocryphal; I do have some sense of discretion).

I’m interested in Rash’s idea of Jungian stories: maybe this is why we keep retelling the same ones, the stranger comes to town (like Gunter) or the hero’s journey (Netflix just added Joseph Campbell’s 1988 “Power of Myth” series, which is so ingrained in the contemporary literary corpus, it almost feels clichéd, though, like Shakespeare and Pope, it created the clichés rather than repeating them). Do authors deliberately put the references and linguistic tricks into their work that we discover, or is genius the capacity to write so that a deeply resonant story, in whatever contemporary form, taps into these elements even when read centuries later? Does the writer bake the cake, or does she merely provide the perfect mix of ingredients for the reader to put together?

3 responses to “BASS 2018: Ron Rash, “The Baptism” from The Southern Review, Autumn 2017

  1. I thought that what happened was the gun went off and blew Gunter’s brains out. It was cocked and loaded, so when he banged the butt of it on the ice, it went off. Maybe I’m wrong about that. Either way, yeah, it seemed like a literal deus ex machina. Gunter, who seemed rather shrewd earlier in the story, ends up being one of those stories that becomes an Internet funny where the bad guy kills himself in a really stupid way.

    The shotgun going off is meant, of course, to call back to mind the empty shotgun that Reverend Yates pointed at Gunter earlier. Yates is activist, but also pacifist. He is willing to work to get a girl out of harm’s way, but not to actually shoot someone. I see the end as kind of like the moment in High Noon when pacifist Grace Kelly picks up a gun to defend her husband. Only Yates doesn’t really have to pick up the gun, he just has to look the other way while Gunter offs himself. So the big change Yates go through to bring about the climax is to realize he can just look the other way while more decisive people do things to protect the weak and his God sort of won’t hate him for that. It didn’t seem like much of a cathartic realization for Yates. Or for the reader.

    • I think Rash likes allegories. Bad guys get their comeuppance, usually hoisted on their own petards. And yeah, you’re right of course he did shoot himself ( and I suppose for a 19th C farmer, smacking a rifle butt down is even stupider than breaking ice on a lake; I agree, his stupidity doesn’t fit with how he’s presented earlier, a good, if nasty, farmer), but ultimately his cause of death was striking the ice for water, and Yates’ “sin” is not speaking.

  2. Pingback: Jordan Ellenberg: The Grasshopper King (Coffee House Press, 2003) | A Just Recompense

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