Chloe's review of The Optimist's Daughter reminded me that I had a Eudora Welty book waiting for me: The Robber Bridegroom, her first novel. Despite the strong themes that run through Welty's work--the singularity of families and the culture of the Mississippi Delta--she really never repeated herself, and The Robber Bridegroom is like nothing else she would ever write. Welty borrows the folk tale of the Robber Bridegroom, in which a maiden unwittingly marries a savage highwayman, and melds it to 19th century Mississippi folklore.
The Robber Bridegroom is peopled with legendary Mississippi figures: Mike Fink, the braggart, brawler, and boatman, and the murderous Harp brothers (Little Harp keeps Big Harp's head in a trunk, where it keeps demanding to be let out). To these it adds Welty's own sharp comic cast, including the young boy Goat, so called "because he could butt his way out the door when his mother left him locked in, and equally, because he could but this way in when she left him locked out," as well as an evil stepmother figure who dies of exhaustion doing an Indian dance meant to prove she is more powerful than the sun.
The protagonist, Rosamond, is the young daughter of a man named Clement Musgrove. Clement's life is saved by a gentleman named Jamie Lockhart, who secretly robs travelers disguised with berry juice. When Rosamond's clothes are stolen by a thief in the woods, Clement enlists Jamie's help to find the culprit, and in the kind of perfect mishap characteristic of fairytales, not Clement, Jamie, or Rosamond realizes that the culprit is really Jamie.
The Robber Bridegroom exhibits little of the sharp realist eye that Welty later developed, but a lot of the clear-eyed humor that characterizes The Ponder Heart and Losing Battles. The characters hop from one fairytale-inspired crisis to the next, each one with its familiar contours: the innocent maiden, the evil stepmother, etc. And when Clement believes he has lost Rosamond for good, Welty's elegiac power appears out of nowhere, if a little disorganizedly:
Like will-o'-the-wisps the little blazes burn on the rafts all night, unsteady beside the shore. Where are they even as soon as tomorrow? Massacre is hard to tell from the performance of other rites, in the great silence where the wanderer is coming. Murder is as soundless as a spout of blood, as regular and rhythmic as sleep. Many find a skull and a little branching of bones between two floors of leaves. In the sky is the perpetual wheel of buzzards.
I read The Robber Bridegroom in a single breezy sitting--I'm on pace for 365 books this year! But despite its lightness--both literal lightness and lightness of town--The Robber Bridegroom is as touching and thoughtful as the rest of Welty's work.