To read about F's and my London trip, start here and click "newer post" to continue the story.

Monday, January 12, 2009

At some point a couple of years ago I listed some literature I remembered reading in high school. Apparently they are still torturing high schoolers with some of these things, because people stumble across my blog looking for information about these stories. The most frequently looked-for story is A.B. Guthrie's "Bargain". It's not available on the internet, probably because it's not in the public domain, but the book it was published in is out of print. Here it is: The Big It and other stories. I found it at the library.

A real quick synopsis - Mr. Baumer, a grocer on the American frontier, is fed up with having his whiskey stolen and being generally treated with disrespect by Slade, a freighter - that's the guy who drives a horsedrawn wagon to transport goods, including the supplies Baumer orders to stock in his store. The other freighters steal whiskey too but for some reason Slade - large, rough, violent, illiterate - is the focus of Baumer's anger. There are some confrontations, things escalate, and Slade assaults Baumer and breaks his hand. To the surprise of the narrator, a schoolboy employed by Baumer, Slade is subsequently engaged again to pick up supplies. He doesn't return, and is found dead on the roadway with the supplies still in the wagon. Upon unloading the supplies, the narrator finds that instead of whiskey, Baumer has ordered wood alcohol. Slade stole his drink as usual and it killed him. He couldn't read "Deadly Poison" on the barrel.

I remember the debate we had in our class as to whether Mr. Baumer committed murder. I contended that he did, because the action he took had the sole motive of bringing about Slade's death. He knew Slade would drink the "whiskey" and he knew it would kill him. Others said that Slade wasn't murdered because he knew the whiskey wasn't his and he'd been told not to steal it. No court could touch him, my classmates said. I'm not too sure about that, actually, but even if true, there's a difference between whether a person is guilty of a thing and whether that thing is demonstrably against the law. So this is one of those things where there's no one right answer (although your teacher may have strong feelings and may try to insist that there is) and it's a useful exercise in working out your moral compass.

Some elements of the story that I notice upon rereading:

The first thing we see Baumer saying to the narrator is this. "Better study, Al. Is good to know to read and write and figure." This possibly explains some of the contempt he has for Slade, a grown man who can't read, and foreshadows what happens to him. The very end of the story:

"Hurry now," Mr. Baumer said. "Is late." For a flash and no longer I saw through the mist in his eyes, saw, you might say, that hilly chin repeated there. "Then ve go home, Al. Is good to know how to read."

The description of Baumer contrasts mightily with that of Slade.

Here's Baumer:

I stood and studied him for a minute, seeing a small, stooped man with a little paunch bulging through his unbuttoned vest.... There was nothing in his looks to set itself in your mind unless maybe it was his chin, which was a small, pink hill in the gentle plain of his face. [Chin = stubbornness? Defiance?]


Then I recognized the lean, raw shape of him and the muscles flowing down into the sloped shoulders, and in the settling darkness I filled the picture in - the dark skin and the flat cheeks and the peevish eyes and the mustache growing rank.


I had heard it said that Slade could make a horse scream with that whip.

Baumer thinks Slade hates him for being an immigrant, and indeed, Slade calls him "Dutchie" (a nickname for Germans). He despises Slade for betraying his trust in stealing from him, but as our narrator points out, the other freighters steal too. "A man makes mistakes," Baumer says twice about his poor judgment in trusting Slade. Maybe he's angry at Slade because he feels stupid about having trusted him? Baumer doesn't see his continuing provocation of Slade's wrath as a mistake, not at all, even though he points out a time or two that Slade is bigger than he is, and that physically he couldn't hope to best him.

After the confrontation:

He spent most of his time at the high desk, sending me or Ed out on the errands he used to run, like posting and getting the mail. Sometimes I wondered if that was because he was afraid of meeting Slade. He could just as well have gone himself. He wasted a lot of hours just looking at nothing, though I will have to say he worked hard at learning to write left-handed.

It's not clear what's happening here. Is Baumer afraid of Slade, as Al thinks? I'm not really feeling that. Is he nursing his grievance until he's angry enough to do something about it? Is he trying to think what to do? Does he already know what he's going to do, and is only waiting for the cold weather so that hypothermia will make Slade's death from methanol poisoning more certain? Is he wrestling with his conscience? I don't see any indication from Al's observation and reporting that Baumer's conscience bothers him at all about what he's doing.

So was he justified in taking Slade out that way? His right hand is permanently damaged, remember, and the law won't do anything about that. Should he have chalked up the whiskey loss to the cost of doing business, as he did with the other freighters, and stayed out of Slade's path? Could he have kept his self-respect if he had? Would he have done what he did if there was any real chance the law would have come down on him?

Readers, feel free to leave comments or questions, or just lurk if you want to.

1 comment:

Trina Morgan said...

I'm teaching this story to my seventh-grade English class; I also remember reading it when I was in junior high. :/

What do you think Guthrie means at the end when he says the mist in Mr. Baumer's eyes cleared briefly and he saw "the hilly chin repeated there"?