This article is a continuation of a series of reviews of the work of author Harry Barba. The original post about my connection and work with Barba was posted here. You can also find reviews of "Round Trip to Byzantium," "One of a Kind" and "The Nightingale Sings."
Harry Barba’s For the Grape Season is an American tale. A work of fiction built around the meeting of two distinct cultures, the novel explores the point at which cultural lines blur, differences gain acceptance, and tradition is fractured. Barba juxtaposes the human tendency to remain with people most similar to us with a recognition of the great learning that occurs when we interact with those least like us. From the bigoted intolerance of the town storekeeper to the runaway romance of the hamlet’s young adults, the grape pickers’ encounter with the villagers might be a microcosm for immigration in America.
Within the confines of a small New England village, Barba joins two groups distinct in appearance and mannerism: the Yankees of Barstowe, Vermont and a group of migrant workers from Armenia. The grape pickers’ strange tongue, copious wine drinking and odd customs come as a shock to the reticent and pious village that holds its homogeny dear.
Yet, the grape pickers arrive in the valley at a time when the village has recently experienced the death of its pastor, Reverend Gadson. Without his leadership, the villagers are uncertain about how to respond to the grape pickers’ peculiar ways. From both the newcomers and the villagers emerge two camps: those who gradually accept the other group and those who remain suspicious. Bachelor Bedros, the big-hearted and heroic figure of the novel, and Lalice Gamba, oldest daughter of the Armenian family, both venture into Yankee society by establishing romantic relations with villagers. However, Lalice’s father Gamba Nohan opposes his daughter’s involvement with Gene Gadson as a threat to convention. Even Elisabeth Gadson, who inspires the village to welcome the grape pickers, holds steadfast to a belief that Gene and Lalice’s relations are dishonorable and humiliating. This conflicting behavior begs the reader to ask why some characters shut out diversity while others welcome it.
The characters of the novel who most interact with other experience a significant growth of character and understanding. Bachelor Bedros, who marries the widow Sarah Belmountain, relinquishes his despair over his last relationship, overcomes much of his fear, and regenerates a feeling of aliveness for himself. Indeed, Bedros has cathartic experiences such as saving Sarah’s daughter from drowning, inspiring her to speak after a long period of remaining mute, acting heroically during a great flood, and ultimately choosing to remain in Barstowe and integrate into Yankee society. Similarly, as Lalice begins her relationship with Gene, the narrator expresses that “something had opened wide within her and singing wildly.”
As characters of these distinct backgrounds interact with each other, they learn more about themselves, their purpose as individuals and come to recognize similarities between themselves and their new neighbors. On the other hand, at the end of the novel, Mr. Nohan and Mrs. Gadson are at odds with family members, accused of their rigidity. Having chosen not to adapt to change, both parents eventually lose their children when Gene and Lalice flee the village to get married.
Leonard Lunch, the town storekeeper, resists acceptance of the grape pickers throughout the novel because he fears finding “some of our ripening girls dandling younguns with slanted eyes.” By relating the newcomers to animals and discounting any similarities between the two groups, villagers such as Lunch are, in a sense, denying a part of themselves. Indeed, Lunch is a descendant of the first outsider to marry into the Barstowe community and is therefore denying his roots by refusing to welcome newcomers. What’s more, as the novel comes to a close and some villagers continue to oppose integration, evidence comes forth that the great-grandmother of all Barstoweites had been a Pequot Indian. In other words, even a village with such apparent homogeneity can be built on ethnic and cultural fusion. Even so, discrimination persists.
Barba captures well the mannerisms of the grape pickers and the often humorous contrast they provide to the New Englanders. Rather than the rain coming down like cats and dogs, Lalice tells Gene that it is coming down like “puppies and kittens,” hinting at the idiomatic challenges of a new language. Later, in order to propose marriage to Sarah, Bachelor Bedros has his countrymen convince Sarah of Bedros’ virtues while Bedros himself sits listening in an adjacent room. Thoroughly confused by this foreign custom, Sarah listens to the grape pickers woo her with such lines as, “this man need woman” and, “inside, he is sad.”
The author peppers his novel with several comedic scenes. For example, waking lonely from a forlorn dream about his runaway bride, Bachelor Bedros brings his stallion Mootik inside to spend the night with him. In the morning, the grape pickers look up to find Mootik pressing his head against the window on the third floor of the parsonage.
Faced with a choice between tradition and adaptation, the novel’s principal characters explore the concept of being selfish or self-centered. Is it self-centered to thwart the outsider or to accept him, to keep tradition or rebel against it? In the final meeting between Gene and his mother, Mrs. Gadson claims to have been denying herself in order to be the Good Samaritan of the village. Similarly, Gamba Nohan strives to uphold tradition so that he can appear respectable to his family and countrymen.
Yet, while Mrs. Gadson and Mr. Nohan claim to behave out of self-denial and for the good of the community, their children suggest that they are merely striving to uphold their image in the eyes of their communities. When Elisabeth accuses Gene of “flaunting [his] selfish indulgence in the face of society,” Gene replies that his mother commits her acts of goodwill in order to fill “her own yawning emptiness.” So who is selfish? The person who believes he acts in the name of society and tradition, the person who breaks cultural rules in the name of independence and love, or both? Barba leaves this to the reader.
What the author does make clear is that those who move beyond the threshold of the status quo evolve to new and fruitful beginnings. At the close of the novel, Bedros and Sarah enjoy their extra fertile land, and Lalice has a fertile womb. Indeed, as the two couples might agree, a willingness to change begets even more change and opportunity.
JENS ERIK GOULD
Jens Erik Gould is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News.