William Styron

A Tidewater Morning

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A Tidewater Morning Summary

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A Tidewater Morning is a 1995 short-story collection by American author William Styron, best known for his 1979 novel Sophie’s Choice, and 1967’s The Confessions of Nat Turner. The three stories of A Tidewater Morning “reflect,” in the words of the Author’s Note, “the experiences of the author at the ages of twenty, ten, and thirteen.” In the first story, “Love Day,” the author’s alter ego Paul Whitehurst is a marine on board a troopship off the coast of Japan. In “Shadrach,” he is a ten-year-old boy who makes the acquaintance of a ninety-nine-year-old former slave. In the title story, “A Tidewater Morning,” Paul is thirteen, and his mother is dying of cancer. The story “Shadrach” was adapted into a film of the same name in 1998, co-directed by the author’s daughter Susanna.

“Love Day” opens on board a troopship as it nears Okinawa, Japan, on April 1, 1945. Twenty-year-old Paul Whitehurst is a Marine lieutenant. He and the other Marines know that they will either spearhead the invasion or avoid combat altogether as a decoy. We meet the soldiers who matter most to Paul, including his macho commander, and another platoon leader who aspires to be a novelist. Paul joins his fellow soldiers in hoping that they will have the chance to fight.

As they wait for news about their deployment, Paul falls asleep. He dreams about several incidents from his childhood. First, he remembers the day the family Oldsmobile broke down on a rural road. His father is an engineer, helping to build battleships, but he is unable to repair the car’s fault. Next, Paul remembers reading a story in the Saturday Evening Post about the possibility of the Japanese attacking America. Making a casual remark about the story, he earns a violent rebuke from his mother, who praises Japan’s civil culture and accuses Paul of falling for scaremongering nonsense. Paul’s father intervenes. His father is a gentle man who rarely raises his voice, but on this occasion, he calls his wife a fool, pointing out that his own job depends upon the fact that America is preparing for war.

When he wakes, Paul feels uneasy. He recalls how the tension between his parents worsened as his mother fell ill with the cancer that eventually killed her. The loss of his mother at a young age has marked him. He cannot be as cavalier about the risk of death as his fellow Marines.

The news arrives. Paul’s ship is the decoy. His unit will not fight. While his fellow soldiers complain—“This is a farce! We didn’t come out here these thousands of miles to sit around that stinking little island and watch our hands and feet rot off. We were trained to kill Japs, for Christ’s sake!”— Paul feels secretly relieved.

In “Shadrach,” Paul is ten, growing up in the Tidewater region of Virginia. He has befriended the Dabneys, a family whose ancestors owned a plantation, but who have come down in the world a long way since the end of slavery. Mr. Dabney is a bootlegger with a foul mouth: “His blasphemies and obscenities, far from scaring me, caused me to shiver with their splendor.” The Dabneys have a “teeming multitude” of seven children: an only child himself, Paul loves the hectic life of this large, disorganized family.

One day, a truly ancient black man arrives at the Dabneys’ property. His name is Shadrach, and when Paul asks him his age, he says that he is ninety-nine years old. Shadrach has walked all the way from Alabama to die on the Dabneys’ land. He was born here, into slavery. He is amazed to find the plantation house dilapidated, and the Dabney family living in a concrete shack.

The Dabneys do their best to honor Shadrach’s wishes. They and Paul nurse the old man through his final illness. Paul and Shadrach bond: they both have precious boyhood memories of the Tidewater landscape.

Shadrach dies, and the Dabneys set about burying him on their land, only to be interrupted by the sheriff, who tells them private internment is against the law. When the sheriff has gone, Mr. Dabney decides to go ahead and bury the former slave anyway. The story ends as the sheriff arrives to arrest him.

In the title story, set during the course of a single day in 1938, Paul is thirteen. He begins the day delivering newspapers for the surly druggist Mr. Quigley. Meanwhile, he knows, his mother is at home dying of cancer. At the same time, other terrible forces are massing on the horizon. In Europe, German troops threaten the border of Czechoslovakia, and at home in Virginia, Paul’s dad is employed in the manufacture of battleships. Flying Fortresses from a nearby Air Force base pass overhead.

Paul hears his mother screaming in pain. Dr. Beecroft refuses to administer more morphine in case it kills her. Finally, he offers to administer cocaine, but too late: Paul’s mother has slipped into her final coma. Meanwhile, Paul’s father collapses into despair. Paul goes over his memories of his parents’ relationship while the maid, Flo, tries to comfort him with her faith.

The Presbyterian minister arrives to comfort Paul’s father. To Paul’s shock and horror, his father—a church deacon—rants at the minister, denying the existence of a God who would allow such suffering. Paul’s own faith, in God and in his father, is shaken.