The Grass Harp, one of Truman Capote’s novellas, was first published in 1951, and uses a limited first person narrative perspective throughout. The narrator of the piece, eleven-year-old Collin Fenwick, is an orphan; both of his parents lay beneath a ‘hill of barewhite slabs and brown burnt flowers’. The novella takes its name from one of the most vivid and beautiful quotes in the story: ‘Below the hill grows a field of high Indian grass which changes color with the seasons; go see it in the fall, late September, when it has gone red as sunset, when scarlet shadows like firelight breeze over it and the autumn winds strum on its dry leaves sighing human music, a harp of voices’.
Following the death of his father, Collin is sent to live with two of his father’s cousins, kindly Dolly and formidable Verena. Dolly takes him under her wing from the first, telling him all about the natural magic which surrounds his new home. She focuses particularly on the ‘harp of voices’ below the graveyard: ‘Do you hear? that is the grass harp, always telling a story – it knows the story of all the people on the hill, of all who ever lived, and when we are dead it will tell ours, too.’ When Dolly falls out with her sister, she takes Collin and her best friend Catherine to live in what they believe to be their secret treehouse. They are soon joined by feared and revered local teen, Riley, and the widowed Judge Cool.
As I mentioned yesterday in the first of my Capote short story reviews, the focus upon different types of relationships between the characters is one of the real strengths of the novella, and has been wrought with such precision. The way in which he details how his characters act with one another, and the small kindnesses which they perform, has been thought out with such care. I am always struck by how well Capote knows his characters, and how they are able to spring to life before the very eyes of the reader in consequence. As in the short stories too, the imagery which Capote creates is gorgeous, particularly when it relates to the protagonists: ‘The snowflake of Dolly’s face’, and a voice ‘crinkling as tissue paper’.
The Grass Harp is a stunning novella, which throws up surprises at each and every turn. Even the minor characters who people the town dance to life upon the page, giving the whole an incredibly vivid feel. Capote has crafted yet another wonderful piece of fiction within its pages, and not a single word has been wasted.