1) Environmental

Them houses is all Merry Hill, and if u sign’s right we go back toward u railroad tracks and u steel-mill fence.’ He nodded toward a battered sign on a gray pole, holding no words, only rows of numbers. Gertie for the first time really looked at the rows of little shed-like buildings, their low roofs covered with snow, the walls of some strange gray-green stuff that seemed neither brick, wood, nor stone…they were all so little and so still against the quivering crimson light, under the roaring airplane, so low after the giant smokestacks (9).

The major transition from a living on a farm in Kentucky to living in a housing project in the big industrial city of Detroit hugely impacted the Nevels family. Both the climate and the geography of a city versus a their farm were foreign to Gertie and Clovis and their family. Back home the land was a vital part of the family’s survival. In Kentucky, Gertie was able to wholly support her family through the crops that she grew, but when they moved to the city, her whole life changed. At home they were poor, but always had enough to live by. In the city they struggle just to get the bare necessities. Gertie has a really hard time spending a lot of money in the market for food that she used to grow herself. In the city it became necessary for Clovis to work and Gertie had to stay home with watching the kids. She was not able to provide for her family in the ways that she could before, leaving her with the feeling of helplessness. This creates a divide between Clovis and Gertie in terms of who is in charge of supporting the family. Both Gertie and Ruben, her oldest son, yearn for the ways things used to be, living on the farm surrounded by the beauty of nature. The drastic change from their farm in the South to Merry Hill is perfectly depicted in the description of their first impression of their new living conditions. The different environments symbolize their changing psychology, as well as illustrate how their surroundings shape their emotional states by giving their emotions a physical form- nature versus man-made industry.


‘That’s it. I had nothing personal against the Japs. See? Somebody told um to try an kill me. Somebody give me a gun and told me to try to kill them. Now, I’m home- peace. And it’s allasame’…She watched Maggie’s redheaded brother, the biggest one, bigger by far than Enoch, step out from the others. Then, so quick she hardly saw it, was the fist swung hard on Enoch’s shoulder, and the expertly tripping foot that sent him sprawling on the alley ice. A smaller one, the boy who had thrown a Coca-cola bottle, grabbed Enoch’s fallen cap, new, with ear muffs, and flung it into the trash can, crying over his shoulder as he ran after the other: “Go to yu public school, yu hillbilly heathen, youse. We don’t have to go to school with niggers an Jews an hillbillies (10).

There are two wars that are being fought, the war abroad against the Germans and the war at home between the different ethnic groups. Despite their many differences, the two wars can be compared on another level- the human level. In the first part of the quote, a young man is struggling with the fact that solely by virtue of being a soldier he must kill this complete stranger. He knows nothing about his opponent except for that he is “the enemy” and that he must kill him, not fully understanding the reasons behind his actions. In the second part of the quote, some of Enoch’s Irish neighbors taunt him for going to public school with all the other “heathens”. There is a lot of tension between the different ethnic groups (Italians, Americans, Irish, Hungarian, etc…) within this small living space and many of them carelessly throw around racial slurs at each other. Not only are there stereotypes about the foreigners, but also many of the foreigners hold false assumptions about the country people whom they call hillbillies. What is ironic is that they use all these big words like “communist”, “heathen”, “Jew”, without even really knowing or understanding their full meaning. It is only when the people of the little community where Gertie lives realize that they need each other in order to survive that they temporarily put their prejudices aside. While the first part is literally breaking apart families by sending husbands and sons off to war, the second is impacting the family because it is breaking down and separating the community in which they live.

3) Historical

‘Oh, I’ll take um, Joe. Whatsa nickel? Whatsa dime? Whatsa a dollar? Whatsa million dollars? I made forty in tips last night. You make a hundred today with this new price. Old man Flint makes another million on machine guns that blows up an kills th wrong guys. Like my pop used to say, ‘Blood’s th cheapest thing on earth, but they’s money in it’ (11).

Due to the hard times with the war going on, every family is under great economic stress. Many are in debt and struggling just to makes ends meet. Sometimes both parents need to work in order to survive, in many cases leaving the oldest children to act as parental figures while their parents are at work. Also, the odd hours that some of the men and women have to work greatly impacts the family dynamics, like in the case of Clovis. Because he has to take the night shift, he sleeps all day, therefore leaving Gertie in charge of everything. The children hardly ever get to spend quality time with their father when he is not actually sleeping or at work because he is always worn-out and grumpy. Old man Flint, the man who owns the factory where Clovis works, is getting rich off of all the cheap labor, supplied by the working class. It is in his interest for the war to continue because when the war ends, there won’t be a need to mass-produce steel for weapons. Yet, he does not care about the negative impact of his companies on families because he is making a huge profit off of the “war industry”. So while Old man Flint’s family is living comfortably, he is inflicting all kinds of stress on the lives of many others.

4) Religious

‘An what mightn’t a terrible God do,” she moaned, flinging her head against the back of the chair and looking at the ceiling. “I cain’t bare to think on it. Henley, my onliest son, a flamen there in Hell. He never found that narrow gate, oh, Lord, that little narrow gate to eternal salvation an life everlasten. But he follered that broad road straight to peridition, a dancen an a drinken his drop-infinite justice, infinite mercy, let me be reconciled. Seems like it’ll kill me. How could God do this to me?’ (12).

Religion is a central theme throughout the novel. The Bible plays an important role both for Gertie and her entire family, but how she interprets it is different from her mother, causing some conflict. Gerite’s father taught her to read through studying both the Bible and the Constitution. Because of this, she believes in Christian values, but does not always read The Bible for fact. In contrast, her mother lives her life according to what The Bible dictates. Gertie’s mother believes that her son, Henley will not go to heaven because he does not accept God into his life and blames this on Gertie’s because of her unorthodox ways of living (dancing). But, Gertie believes that because Henley was not sinful, he will go to heaven. Although, Gertie does not lead as rigid a lifestyle as her mother, she continuously instills values into her children though both biblical text and by the way she lives her own life.