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The narrative jumps to a Sunday, three years after Mr. McEachern adopts Joe. In his calm, cold, yet not unkind manner, the strictly Presbyterian McEachern chides his adopted son for not learning his catechism by heart. He gives Joe another hour to try before he begins beating the child in the stable, asking him at hourly intervals whether he has committed the passages to memory. When Joe does not respond, McEachern whips him again with the strap. Eventually, Joe passes out.
Joe wakes several hours later to the sight of his father seated beside him on the bed. McEachern makes Joe kneel beside the bed and pray for forgiveness before placing the catechism once again in the child’s hands. After McEachern leaves to attend a distant church service, Joe’s adoptive mother brings him a tray of food. Despite her insistence that Mr. McEachern knows nothing about the food, Joe takes the tray and angrily dumps it upside down in the corner. Only later, alone and famished, does he eat the food off the floor “like a dog.”
Several years later, at the age of fourteen, Joe and the other farm boys lure a young, willing black woman into a darkened shed to have sex. When Joe’s turn comes, he begins to beat the woman. The other boys subdue him, but only after using considerable force. When they finally release the seething Joe, he returns home to face his father’s punishment for not completing the evening chores. His father, knowing his son is growing up quickly, asks Joe whether he has been with a woman.
At seventeen, Joe sells his calf without his father’s approval and buys a suit with the money. His father finds the suit hidden in the hay loft and asks where the calf is. Joe lies. Having revealed Joe’s blasphemy and false truths, McEachern punches his son twice in the face. Joe, able to defend himself, advises his father to stop the beatings. Later, Joe’s foster mother tells her husband that she purchased the suit herself with her butter money. Calling her a liar, Mr. McEachern forces his wife to beg God for forgiveness.
Joe muses that Mrs. McEachern has always tried to be kind to him, from her first fumbling attempts to be his mother to her later fumbling attempts to deflect Mr. McEachern’s wrath away from him. Joe, however, feels that the punishments would be bearable and impersonal if Mrs. McEachern were not always trying to make them seem personal. He thus hates Mrs. McEachern bitterly, despite the fact that the beatings and forced labor come from his father. He believes that she is always trying to make him cry.
His parents finally asleep, seventeen-year-old Joe silently shimmies down a rope that he has rigged outside his bedroom window. Scurrying into the barn, he puts on his new suit and consults his new watch, which he has forgotten to wind. Ready, he heads down to the road and waits for his date to pick him up in her car and take them to the dance.
I think Joe Christmas' upbring is responsible for his complex behaviour in his adulthood. More often heredity creates individuals, but in the case of Joe Christmas its the environment in which lived that played a significant role in his creation. But what are the ramifications of Joe Christmas' biracial background?
I can't get past the ugly racism in this book. I'd like to think the racism belongs to the characters, but the author gives no reason for the reader to think it didn't belong to him as well.
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