What’s up with the dead bodies?

Chekhov's Gun on Bandmix
Art credit: Chekhov’s Gun on Bandmix

In three of the five states I’ve read so far, a character in one of the state’s books finds a dead body beneath the surface of water: in the bayou in Alabama’s Train Whistle Guitar, in the Mississippi River in Arkansas’s “Ark of Bones;” and in the Pacific Ocean in California’s Cannery Row. This wouldn’t seem odd to me – dead bodies make for interesting stories, right? – except that in all three cases our protagonist happens upon the body, reacts or doesn’t react, and then the event disappears from the story. The characters take no action, the discoveries do not cause later trauma, and though I keep expecting the story to come back to it, the body is never referred to again beyond the scene in which the character finds it.

The first time this happened, when I read Albert Murray’s Train Whistle Guitar, I waited for the body to reemerge in the narrative, and when it didn’t, I was confused as to why it was there in the first place. When it happened again, in Henry Dumas’s “Ark of Bones,” the language of the discovery was eerily similar.

He seemed to be a white man, but you couldn’t really be certain about that either. All I could make out was that he was a dead man.- Albert Murray ¹

His body was so ate up by fish and crawdads that they couldn’t tell whether he was white or black. Just a dead man. – Henry Dumas ²

In both of these stories, the protagonists who happen upon the bodies are young African American boys, and in both cases, the author makes a point of telling us that the race of the dead man is indeterminable. In both cases the young boys leave the bodies and take no action; they find the corpses, note them, and the stories continue, influenced in no way that I could discern by the discoveries of the bodies.

Similarly, in Cannery Row, marine biologist Doc discovers a dead body trapped beneath a rocky ledge when he is on an octopus-collecting expedition at low tide. Unlike the Mississippi River bodies, this Pacific Ocean body is intact – a girl with hair that swirls with the ocean’s movements,  white faced and with eyes open – and Doc is momentarily traumatized. He staggers back to shore, gasps for air, and when a passerby asks if he’s okay, he stutters about the body, is too troubled to call the police himself – can the bystander please do it? – and the body never appears again in the story.

The scene in Cannery Row is awfully dramatic for us never to return to it. I would have been jarred by it without two other books already featuring floating corpses, but together with the Murray and Dumas bodies, Steinbeck’s deserted corpse – the third of its kind –  alerted me that perhaps I am missing something. Many writers know Chekhov’s rule:

If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there. ³

All three of these writers – Murray, Dumas, Steinbeck – are accomplished authors who know what they are doing. And all three put dead bodies in their works. Why are those bodies there? Random corpses have appeared in 3 out of 15 books I’ve read since I began my Andrea Reads America project. Is this an American lit thing, and if so, what’s it all about?

In the Murray and Dumas stories the bodies may make a larger point about race: in death we are all the same, indistinguishable by the color of our skin. That is an important point that struck me about those passages, and one that I still carry with me, that we are all the same in death – why not in life, too? The corpses also reveal some things about place: their existence suggests a place of violence and murder, and the fact that the bodies have gone undiscovered indicates an isolated, rural setting.

The purpose of the Steinbeck body is not as clear to me. It plays an immediate role of putting Doc in a state of confusion and vulnerability, but beyond that I am at a loss. He does not reflect on his own mortality later, or at least not in a way that was obvious to me.

I am alert now to these bodies as I read my way across the US. Perhaps I won’t come across another; perhaps it’s just coincidence that three piled up at the beginning of my tour. I plan to keep a body count, though, and to read closely if I come across another corpse. Because to me, these corpses are like Chekhov’s gun: they are hanging there on the wall, why did they not go off?

Can you recall a similar story, with a dead body that is discovered and never discussed again? What are your thoughts on the purpose of these corpses?

¹ Murray, Albert. Train Whistle Guitar. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company. 1974. Print.
² Dumas, Henry. Ark of Bones and Other Stories. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. 1975. Print
³ Valentine, Bill T. Chekhov: The Silent Voice of Freedom. New York: Philosophical Library. 1987. Print.

I grew up on an island. How did I never read this?



I came to Island of the Blue Dolphins when I reached California, the fifth state on my literary tour of the United States. Because I am progressing through the states alphabetically, I arrived in California after spending several weeks in Arizona and Arkansas, and I was parched for a new experience. Island of the Blue Dolphins, with its gulls and sea spray, its abalone and kelp, was like a cool draft of water on a dry, dusty throat; it quenched my thirst.

I grew up on an island off the coast of Georgia (USA), and I am shocked that I never read this book as a child. Nearly every woman I know, when I mention the book, says “Oh my God, I LOVED that book when I was a little girl! I read it over and over again.” I admit that even as an adult I could read and reread. It is that wonderful.

Winner of the 1961 Newbery medal for children’s literature, The Island of the Blue Dolphins is the story of Karana, an 1800s native girl living with her people on an island off the California coast – the Island of the Blue Dolphins (San Nicolas Island, about 75 miles southwest of Los Angeles) – who comes to live alone on the island after a series of tragic events. The narrative is emotionally detached and the tragic events are not graphically described, so the book would not be too traumatic for children.

What I loved about this book is that the descriptions of Karana’s life on the island – in the 1800s, in a time before technology – are vivid and beautiful: I could hear the gulls and the crashing waves, I could smell the kelp and the sea air, I could taste the fish and the salt and the wind.

“Sweet odors came from the wild grasses in the ravines and from the sand plants on the dunes.”

“A fresh wind that smelled of kelp blew out of the northern sea.”

“I gathered gull eggs on the cliff and Ramo speared a string of small fish in one of the tide pools.”

“I knew it was spring because that morning at dawn the sky was filled with darting birds.”

“Far down, the sea ferns moved as though a breeze were blowing there.”

The Island of the Blue Dolphins was exactly what I needed after being landlocked in the dusty desert of Arizona and the cotton fields of Arkansas. I may have to buy a copy “for my children” to keep around the house.

From the author’s note: “The island called in this book the Island of the Blue Dolphins was first settled by Indians in about 2000 B.C, but it was not discovered by white men until 1602…The girl Robinson Crusoe whose story I have attempted to re-create actually lived alone upon this island from 1835 to 1853, and is known to history as The Lost Woman of San Nicolas.”

When I covered my around-the-US reading project on my Butterfly Mind blog, I was reluctant to publish posts of favorite quotes. I thought, “Those aren’t my words – they don’t fit here.” Now that Andrea Reads America has its own site, I am breaking that silence. The authors’ original words do their work more justice than any book review I write, and when grouped together, the quotes become atmospheric of the state they are set in. I hope you enjoy this new addition to my Andrea Reads America coverage.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee book cover on andreareadsamerica.comFrom Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird


“Pass the damn ham please.”

“North Alabama was full of Liquor Interests, Big Mules, steel companies, Republicans, professors, and other persons of no background.”

“The class was wriggling like a bucketful of catawba worms.”

“Looks like if Mr. Arthur was hankerin’ after heaven he’d come out on the porch at least.”

“The usual crew had flunked the first grade again, and were helpful in keeping order.”

“Miss Maudie’s old sunhat glistened with snow crystals.”

“When Jem an’ I fuss Atticus doesn’t ever just listen to Jem’s side of it, he hears mine too.”

“Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an’ then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home?”

“He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives.”


“That boy’s yo’ comp’ny and if he wants to eat up the table cloth you let him you hear?”


“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.”

“I just hope that Jem and Scout come to me for their answers instead of listening to the town.”

“People in their right minds never take pride in their talents.”

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’ve been licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”

“They’ve done it before and they did it tonight and they’ll do it again and when they do it – seems that only children weep.”

Forrest Gump by Winston Groom book cover on andreareadsamerica.comFrom Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump

“Mos of them writer fellers got it straight – cause their idiots always smarter than people give em credit for.”

“‘The Romantic Period,’ [the professor] say, ‘did not follow a bunch of ‘classic bullshit.’ Nor were the poets Pope and Dryden a couple of ‘turds.””

“Bubba an me, we has got us a plan for when we get outta the Army. We gonna go back home an get us a srimp boat an get in the srimpin bidness.”

“Somewhere in all this, I got myself shot, an, as luck would have it, I was hit in the ass.”

“When the srimp bidness first started up, I kind of enjoyed the work, an goin down to the ponds an puttin up the nets an then harvestin the srimp an all… Now it aint nothing like that. I got to go to all sorts of dinner parties where people servin a lot of mysterious-lookin food and the ladies wearing big ole earrings an shit.”

“They was a nice breeze blowin off the bayou an you coud hear frawgs an crickets and even the soun of a fish jumpin ever once in a wile.”

“At night I would set out on the porch of the shack an play my harmonica an on Saturday night I would go into town an buy a six-pack of beer an me an Sue [the male oranguntan] would get drunk.”

Train Whistle Guitar by Albert Murray book cover on andreareadsamerica.comFrom Albert Murray’s Train Whistle Guitar

“You could smell the mid-May woods up the slope behind us then, the late late dogwoods, the early honey-suckles, and the warm earth-plus-green smell of the pre-summer undergrowth.”

“Woodpeckers always sounded as if they were out in the open in the very brightest part of the sunshine.”

“We were still in the bayou country, and beyond the train-smell there was the sour-sweet snakey smell of the swamp-land.”

“And as he talked, his voice uncle-calm and his facts first-hand and fresh from the getting-place, he kept reaching out every now and then to touch the guitar.”

“A preposition is relationship; and conjunction is membership; and interjection is the spirit of energy.”

“The light near the piano was bright enough for you to see them dancing and see Claiborne Williams at the keyboard with his hat cocked to the left and his wide silk four-in-hand tie flipped back over his right shoulder, spanking and tickling his kind of blues.”

“All he ever drank during the daylight hours was black coffee, but now he was holding the fruit jar of whiskey that he called his percolating juice, and every now and then one woman would take it and help herself to a sip and then hand it back and give him a kiss on the cheek.”

“Stagolee moved over to where the piano was and put his fruit jar on top of it and stood clapping his hands and snapping his fingers with the women around him doing the shimmieshewobble and the messaround.”

“Deljean McCray… was as cinnamon-bark brown as was the cinnamon-brown bark she was forever chewing and smelling like.”