The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
Book 1: The War Years
From Massacre to All Kinds of People
Just after everyone wakes, someone screams "Patrollers" and everyone hides under bushes, Jane hiding with Big Laura's small son, Ned. Patrollers are poor white trash who used to find runaway slaves, and who later will become the Ku Klux Klan. They ride in on horses and see the slow wit, who did not hide because he did not know what was happening. They beat him to death. Jane hears cries and screams from other beatings but stays hidden with Ned. They hide until the cries stop and all the Patrollers leave. When they get up, Jane sees that everyone she is with has been killed, including Big Laura and her baby girl. Big Laura apparently managed to kill two Patrollers before she died, as Jane sees one body and another set of bloody clothes. Since everyone is dead, Jane takes their leftover food. She gives Ned the flint that Big Laura kept to light the fire. Ned and Jane then leave walking all day and well into the night. They stop by a river that they cannot cross. As Ned sleeps, Jane thinks about everyone's death and where she will go.
The next morning, Jane and Ned walk along the river to find a place where they can pass. They stop when they hear voices, but realizing that they are black voices, they approach. When the blacks see them, everyone freezes. But when Jane asks if they are in Ohio, they all burst out laughing. The blacks are with a white woman who fled her plantation in Louisiana during the war to hide in Texas. She is now returning to see about her land. The white woman tells Jane to go back to her plantation. Jane describes how her master beat her mother to death. The white woman gives Jane and Ned some meat and hot food and invites them to return with her to her plantation, because she never beat her slaves. Jane refuses to listen and explains that she is going to find the Yankee soldier Mr. Brown in Ohio. The white woman explains that Jane will need to take a ferry to cross the river, which requires money, and that she should really just stay with them. Jane is obstinate and refuses. As she leaves with Ned, she sees that the white woman is crying.
Shelter for a Night
Jane and Ned soon find the ferry on the river and try to get on it. The captain forces them off since they have no money, so Jane and Ned just sit by it all day long. After many hours, a white man with a horse approaches and sees them. When they tell him that they want to cross, he takes them across. Jane explains about leaving her plantation and desire to get to Ohio. The white man is an investigator for the Freedom Bureau and he comes from New York. He tells Jane that Louisiana will soon be as free as Ohio, so she might as well stay. He knows where they can spend the night anyhow and takes them to a big house. A black woman meets them at the door and shows Jane and Ned a boys and girls dormitory. The woman feeds them, forces them to bathe, and puts them to sleep. Jane tells Ned before they lie down that they are going to leave tomorrow.
All Kinds of People
A white man enters before they sleep and makes everyone get on their knees to pray. As Jane tries to sleep, she hears voices from the boys' dormitory and rushes over. A boy tried to grab the flint Ned has carried around, but Ned fought back and now the other boy had a knot on his forehead. The white man returns and wants to take Ned's flint away, but Jane argues with him so he leaves it. He orders them all back to bed. The next morning they dress, wash, and eat. When Jane learns that they have to learn their ABCs before playing, she decides that she is leaving. She grabs Ned and their bundles. When the white man asks her where she is going, she says Ohio. The man, the black woman, and the other children all watch them walk away. As Jane and Ned walk, they soon come upon a group of Yankee soldiers. Jane sees two black soldiers and asks about Mr. Brown. There is a Brown at the camp, so Jane forces her way over to his tent and eventually goes inside. This Brown however, is Colonel Brown and not the one she met. He asks her a few questions, but she leaves quickly with Ned. Ned and she continue to walk and later that day Jane asks a poor white woman for some water. The woman says miserable things about "niggers" and the fact that the Yankees ruined her house, but pours water into their hands anyhow. Jane and Ned walk East until sundown, then sleep.
These chapters jump into the beginning of Jane's odyssey in the days after slavery. The appearance of the Patrollers and the death of her acquaintances leave Jane on her own with the exception of the very young Ned. The violence of the Patrollers testifies to the violence experienced by blacks after slavery. Their deaths are tragic given the fact that they have just been freed. The way that Gaines focuses upon Big Laura during the incident further increases the poignancy of the crime. Big Laura dies holding her infant daughter in her arms. When Jane sees them, she initially takes the baby out of Big Laura's arms to bury it, but decides that Big Laura looked more sad with nothing to hold and places it back. Jane and Ned's reaction to the deaths demonstrates the way in which they have become accustomed to violence at a very young age. Both of them stay hidden and quiet when the Patrollers arrive and Jane reflects that even though young, Ned made not as sound "as if he knew that death was just a footstep away."
The presence of the Patrollers also initiates Gaines's discussion of the various social classes in the white race that will continue in the book. The Patrollers are lower class whites who did not own land or slaves, but who used to work capturing slaves and bringing them back. In the post Slavery period, many of these whites will become a biggest haters of the blacks. The landowning whites will still maintain their land, but the working class whites in the South will now have to compete with free blacks who could take some of their jobs. Partially in response to the changing social times, these lower class whites become especially involved in violent activities and societies against blacks, such as the Ku Klux Klan. Their involvement in these groups is often related to their social class.
The white female landowner whom Jane and Ned meet is very different from the Patrollers, though of the same race. While the Patrollers kill the blacks, the white woman offers to take Jane and Ned back. The slaves around the white woman all seem to like her and frequently are laughing. One of them in particular, even gets upset when Jane talks back to his mistress and chastises her. This group has been living in Texas, though, since the war and in many ways they appear to be completely out of touch. The mistress entertains romantic notions of slavery. While Jane explains that her mother was beaten to death on their plantation, the mistress claims that her slaves were never beaten. The mistress her plantation as some sort of idyllic pastoral, but Jane knows better. She refuses to sign up under another form of condescending patronage that would once again enslave her. As Jane walks away, the white woman is crying. Her tears reflect her realization about the brutality of the slavery she has supported, rather than her grief that Jane is actually leaving. Jane has awakened the mistress to her own complicity in the racist system.
Jane and Ned's encounter with a Yankee from the Freedom Bureau starts Gaines's commentary upon the role of the Northern Federal Government after the war. The investigator maintains somewhat unrealistic romantic ideas about what will happen in the South, which were held by many Northerners at the time. He tells Jane that Louisiana soon will feel as free as Ohio, a completely untrue statement, so she should just stay there. Still while his notions are overly idealistic, he does offer insight to Jane. He is a man with a horse, a motif common to the Southern gentleman, but he treats her in a very different way than most white men that she has met. He pays to get them across the river and finds them a safe room. The children's home that Jane and Ned reach represents safety, but for Jane it also represents another form of enslavement. Jane has just been freed and she wants to be under obligation to no one. She is free to do what she wants and she chooses unsafe freedom rather than safe adherence to the rules. In some ways her decision might be unwise, but it is completely consistent with Jane's spunky character.
Jane's personal voice continues to grow during this section. Several incorrect spellings of words appear in an effort to demonstrate Jane's speech patterns. The Freedom Bureau written as "Beero," a forehead is called a "forrid," the investigator is called the "invessagator," and Louisiana is always called "Luzana." The improperly spelled terms approximate the way that Jane would pronounce them. By placing them within a written text, Gaines is able to replicate the sound of Jane's oral narrative as his editor supposedly would have heard it. The terms additionally help to maintain the richness of Jane's dialect, while further reinforcing the notion that she has never been formally educated.
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