The Grass Harp (1951)

by Truman Capote

In this early novel Truman Capote explored a theme that he would return to repeatedly: the isolation of a sensitive young boy who is an outsider because of difference or a parent's death. Narrator Collin Fenwick, orphaned at age 11, is taken in by his father's cousins, two elderly unmarried sisters, in a small Southern town. Younger sister Verena owns many of the businesses in town and is controlling and intimidating. Dolly, dreamy, sweet, and somewhat flaky, wins the heart of the lonely boy. Along with the household's long-time black servant, Catherine, Dolly provides Collin a loving bond. They enjoy jaunts in the countryside, where they collect herbs for Dolly's tinctures and picnic in a tree house.

The plot's conflict arises when Verena wants to seek a patent for Dolly's herbal recipe for dropsy. Dolly rebels by running away to the tree house, taking along Catherine and Collin. The three are joined by retired Judge Charlie Cool. While Dolly says she hears the voices of departed loved ones in the wind whishing through the Indian grass, Judge Cool talks about love being "a chain of love, as nature is a chain of life." Love blooms for her and the judge in their refuge, and he proposes marriage. The idyll lasts until a member of a rescue party accidentally wounds Collin. Dolly and Verena are reconciled and stay together, but Judge Cool remains close to Dolly.

The Grass Harp is based on characters from Capote's own life, including his aunt "Sook" Fault, to whom the book is dedicated. She was a guardian angel to Capote after he was sent to live with relatives following his parents' divorce. With the loneliness of his childhood, and his physical differences (homosexual, only 5 feet 3 inches tall, with a high-pitched voice and odd vocal mannerisms), Capote knew life outside the mainstream firsthand. 

A sweet story with a lesson about the human heart, The Grass Harp shows Capote was already an elegant and accomplished writer at age 26.


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