Alfred Maund's The Big Boxcar
Reviewed by Meredith Sue WillisThe Big Boxcar
University of Illinois Press, Chicago 1999. Paper.
(The Radical Novel Reconsidered, Series Editor, Alan Wald)
178 pages. $14.95
The University of Illinois Press is doing a great service to readers with ethical and social concerns by reissuing a series of American radical novels of the mid-twentieth century. The Big Boxcar by Alfred Maund, originally published in 1957, is the ninth in the series. Maund, a Southern white man, has written three novels. This was his first, but at the time of writing, he was already an experienced labor journalist and editor as well as an active supporter of the Montgomery (Alabama) bus boycott and the Cuban Revolution. These facts are significant not only because McCarthyism and red-baiting had a deleterious effect on his career, but also because his activist, anti-racist values underlie The Big Boxcar.
The novel is made up of linked stories told by a group of black characters heading north in a boxcar. Mutually distrustful and showing signs of potential violence, the group is bored. They decide that each traveler will tell a story about white people, ostensibly to pass the time, but actually to delineate the shape of racism in post-World War II United States.
The stories range from humorous tall tales like one about a talking dog-organizer to the only woman traveler's story, which is a complete novella in itself. The main point-of-view character, Sam, tells a sad and shocking story in which the hated white man of his childhood proves to be his own father.
In the boxcar, notes the introduction, "a foundation exists for a new kind of egalitarian utopian order." Indeed it is the lone woman of the group, Marie, not one of the men, who provides leadership. She both organizes the story telling and instructs the men in how to avoid the authorities in Birmingham. This is a novel that could easily have ended with the cliché of a general bloodbath, but under Marie's guidance, the boxcar riders develop a plan that demands some personal sacrifice but results in safe passage for the majority of the group.
Before the final action, when the outcome is still unknown, Sam articulates what the boxcar travelers have learned: "By all rights, a person could have expected rough trouble, but the most that had happened was big talk, a little drinking and some swapping of stories. Despite the lack of law, they stuck together, keeping each other in line....It took a lot of the fear out of what was coming up ahead to think how people don't need a sheriff to make them people. "
Meredith Sue Willis's trilogy of novels about coming of age in the nineteen sixties includes Higher Ground, Only Great Changes, and Trespassers.
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