TENDER GRAPES is the story of Evelyn (a precocious girl) growing up in a small southern town in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Evelyn’s parents (union organizers) have sent Evelyn here to Aunt Mildred (a good-natured, but uneducated and bigoted farm woman who lives at the edge of poverty).
Aunt Mildred loves Evelyn as the child she never had and provides her with fried chicken, grits, red-eye gravy and Bible verses for all occasions. But Aunt Mildred has little use for Evelyn’s artistic talents or inquiring mind (considering them wasteful vanities and potentially dangerous to morals and manners). Evelyn has seen life outside and longs for it again. Beneath their mutual affection is a subtle current of mutual antipathy.
One morning they stand on the hot, sun-bleached boards of the train depot, waiting for the return of the body of a neighbor killed in World War II. This man’s widow (Florine) and son (George) stand beside Evelyn and Aunt Mildred. The anguish is nearly paralyzing. George is about Evelyn’s age (10), but seems older. Unnoticed by the adults, his glances at Evelyn are sinister and subtly imply a precocious sensuality. Evelyn is uneasy, but is drawn to him against her will.
George lives in squalor with his mother who is deeply religious, but poverty-stricken. They are looked down on by those better-off (which is practically everybody in town). George equates his mother’s faith in God with these deplorable conditions and has early turned to demonic sources to aid him in his upward mobility.
From this first meeting at the depot, George will insinuate himself into Evelyn’s life, sensing her alienation and desperation (for which he offers his peculiar brand of “help”). Evelyn and two of her friends (Emmiline and Pres Frit) begin to feel enslaved by unseen powers they cannot control, leading to a series of startling events.
However, as Freud once said, it is not so much what is true, but what one thinks is true that determines the course of one’s thoughts and life. Are these events due to low self-esteem and bad decisions on the part of the victims, or are they supernaturally engineered by George? This is left to the reader. George is ultimately caught in hisown black web.
Evelyn will ultimately survive George and will leave to seek her own fortune, in her own way, in the outer world. This is a sinister story in a sultry climate, but it is also about growing self-awarenes and renewal, leading to victory. It is the traditional Coming of Age story, but in the Southern Gothic tradition. It speaks authentically from the red clay dust and the spirit of its time.