Rattlebone Summary

Maxine Clair


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Rattlebone Summary

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Maxine Clair’s Rattlebone (1995) is a collection of eleven connected short stories set in the fictional town of Rattlebone, Kansas, in the 1950s.

In the first story, October Brown, Irene Wilson describes her teacher, October Brown. Irene is black and attends a mostly all-black school in Rattlebone. On her first day of school Irene is fascinated by October and the story of how her father killed her mother when she was young, and the devil visited it her, leaving her with a birthmark that looks like a bleached patch of skin. Irene believes that the whiteness will spread and when it covers your whole body you die. Irene’s father, James, and mother, Irene, struggle at home, and Irene is alarmed when October and her father begin a relationship which causes incredible damage to the Wilson family, leaving Irene hating October.

In Lemonade, Irene and her friend Wanda play a game they call lemonade. Wanda’s brother, Puddin’, is slow likes to eat mayonnaise from the jar with his hands. A woman Irene describes as the whitest lady she’s ever seen drives into town and interrupts their game to tell them bible stories and gives them rosary beads. They call her Sister Joan of Arc. Puddin’ hears a piece of music and can replicate it perfectly, and Sister Joan of Arc claims it is a miracle from god she inspired, but Irene’s mother says this is blasphemy.

In Water Seeks Its Own Level, flood waters threaten Rattlebone. James is revealed as a man who often daydreams about leaving town and abandoning his life. He volunteers to help pile sandbags as part of the Civil Defense Team, but doesn’t tell his wife, Pearl. As James works, he sees firsthand the fury of nature and reconsiders his dreams, realizing that the world is more powerful then he is.

In Cherry Bomb, Irene relates how her group of friends are bored and wandering town in the summer. Her brother, Eddy, has lost an eye when playing with cherry bombs (small fireworks) but Irene has the last cherry bomb. She’s also begun a private diary. Eddy’s friend, Nick, threatens to put his hand up Irene’s dress, and she records this in her diary, excited. Later, Nick drowns. Irene throws away her diary, feeling it contains nothing worthwhile, and lights the last cherry bomb.

In The Roomers, we hear the story of Lydia and Thomas Pemberton, who run a boarding house. Lydia insists that they only rent to proper folk, and so they restrict their boarders to teachers. October Brown comes to lives there, and all is fine until Lydia observes October being friendly with James Wilson. When confronted, October reveals she is pregnant, and Lydia insists she leave the house. Thomas intervenes, however, insisting October can stay, and the Pembertons fight. October leaves, and so does Thomas, and Lydia is stunned.

In A Most Serene Girl Irene tries to make friends with Dorla, who witnessed her father kill her mother. Irene becomes best friends with Geraldine, whose mother runs a ‛tourist house’ where people rent rooms by the hour for trysts. Irene and Geraldine make a game of spying through keyholes to see people having sex. One day Irene is shocked to see her mother in a room with a strange man. She is physically sickened and stops trying to be friends with Dorla.

In The Great War, Pearl contemplate her life. James is a good husband in the sense that he supports his family and doesn’t leave, but Pearl’s days are filled with waiting, endless waiting for James to come home and for things to change.

In Secret Love, Irene deals with her mother insisting her father sleep in a separate room and with her friend, Wanda, suddenly announcing they can no longer share their diaries. Wanda has been taking care of her brother, Puddin’, but he is being sent away to a group home due to behavioral problems, and Wanda is distraught by this.

In The Creation, Irene meets a girl from Redtown, a section of Rattlebone where the people still follow their African religious and cultural traditions. Irene is fascinated, and goes to Redtown to practice the poem she is learning for a competition. But Irene is informed that the competition is not desegregated, and so her poem is assigned to a white girl. The teacher suggests that Irene coach the white girl, but Irene refuses.

In A Sunday Kind of Love, Wanda, now fully grown, begins seeing the head of the deacons, Thomas Pemberton, after his wife dies. This is a scandal, and a meeting of church elders is held to discuss it, but Thomas is steadfast that there is nothing wrong with his relationship with the much younger woman.

In the final story, The Last Day of School, Irene is about to go off to college, having received a scholarship from a group led by October Brown. A plane crashes into the school, and her parents finally split up, but agree to open a new business together.