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Joe and Miss Burden have officially become lovers, though still only intimate after nightfall. They go about their separate workdays and then meet at night. At one point, their increasingly all-consuming sex rituals take the form of games and then making love outside on the grounds. With the coming of the fall, their relationship enters a new phase, and their passion cools. Joe still works at the mill and begins storing and selling liquor at the Burden property. He goes to Memphis once a week on business, where he also patronizes prostitutes.
Soon, Miss Burden tells Joe that she wants a child. He objects, but four months later she announces that she is pregnant. Fall turns to winter, and the two lovers no longer see each other. One night, a note left on his cot requests Joe’s presence in the house. Miss Burden proposes that he take over her job advising the staff and students of black colleges. Joe thinks she is mad or affected by the pregnancy. He cannot get her out of his mind.
In the meantime, Joe Brown has come to stay with Christmas in the cabin. One night, Brown chides Christmas about his affair with Miss Burden, and Christmas repeatedly strikes him, chasing him off. Beckoned by another note, Christmas enters the house and heads directly up the stairs to Miss Burden’s bedroom. He enters to find her seated at a table wearing spectacles. She offers to send him to a black college and then have him learn the legal trade in her black lawyer’s office in Memphis, all in preparation for taking over her affairs. Joe is outraged by the suggestion and repeatedly strikes her.
Still, Miss Burden summons Joe again on yet another evening. He mounts the stairs, carrying his razor, to find that Miss Burden is praying. She attempts to coax him back to God and asks him to kneel with her, but he refuses. From beneath her shawl, Miss Burden reveals a cap-and-ball revolver; a moment later, she fires. The action suddenly skips ahead to find Joe, stunned and inattentive, waving down a car, driven by a frightened young man and his girlfriend. Only after he gets out miles down the road does Joe realize he has the revolver in his hand. After examining the pistol, he realizes that it failed to fire when Miss Burden pointed it at him. It contains two bullets, meaning that she intended to kill him and then herself.
People begin to gather near the burning Burden home. The sheriff has the body of Miss Burden, covered in a sheet, removed from the scene. The town’s new fire truck arrives, but there is no source of water and thus little that can be done to put out the fire. The cabin on the property shows signs of recent occupation, and the sheriff cross-examines a black man from the neighborhood, assuming that someone from the all-black area is the killer. The sheriff beats the man with a belt until he confesses that two white men had been the cabin’s most recent occupants. They are soon identified as the two Joes, Brown and Christmas.
The sheriff then leaves, leading a noisy caravan back to town, pausing only as a wagon stops to let off Lena Grove. He breaks the seal on the letter Miss Burden left at the bank to be opened after her death and then wires her lawyer in Memphis and her nephew in New Hampshire. The nephew responds with an offer of a $1,000 reward. Before long, Joe Brown appears before the officials in town to try to claim the reward, labeling Christmas the killer. The young man who drove Christmas from the crime scene in his wagon corroborates this story, telling the sheriff what had happened that night. A search party sets off with two bloodhounds but cannot turn up the fugitive.
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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