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CHAPTER SUMMARY AND NOTES
Chapter 16 recounts two visits of Byron to Hightower. In the first, Byron tells Hightower about Christmas's capture, and in the second, he reveals that Doc and Mrs. Hines are Christmas's grandparents. Byron asks Hightower to offer Christmas an alibi.
Byron visits Hightower again and tells him about Christmas's capture. Hightower seems to feel that a demand is being made on his sympathies, and he doesn't want to get involved. He talks about having taught himself to stay uninvolved, then catches himself in mid-sentence and changes his words to "taught by them." By "them" Hightower presumably means the community. As with Christmas, the question arises as to whether Hightower has chosen his way of life or whether the community has forced his isolation upon him.
Hightower seems to compare his own persecution to Christmas's and blames the community for driving people to acts that the same community then punishes. Hightower's insight about Christmas may well be valid, but Hightower does not yet seem to be equally insightful about his own life.
Byron has left, and Hightower is sitting by his study window, staring out at the street. He knows without looking at a watch just when the church music is to begin. Note how characters in Light in August are often dependent on fixed routines that are keyed to certain days of the week or times of the day. Recall what happens to these characters when they have to give up their routines. When Lena Grove enters his life, Byron Bunch drops his schedule of working on Saturdays and leading a choir on Sundays. Even Christmas seems to change when he no longer knows what day it is.
Listening to the church music, Hightower thinks about the people of the South
and what he sees as their tendency to escape from both pleasure and pain
by drinking, fighting, and praying. You may find this characterization
an accurate description of many of the figures in this novel. But once
more he doesn't seem to show any insight into his own ways of escaping
pleasure and pain. He expects that the town will crucify Christmas. And,
he says, they will do so gladly and, he seems to imply, self-righteously.
Byron returns to Hightower's study. He is accompanied by Doc and Mrs. Hines. If you think back to the Byron you first met in Chapter 2, you may notice how much he has changed. Why is this man, who used to care so much about staying out of trouble, now getting so involved in the case of Joe Christmas? Once Byron let himself fall in love with Lena, he seems to have become readier to help other people too.
From Byron and the Hineses, Hightower learns that Joe Christmas is the son of the Hineses' daughter. Even fifty years ago Doc Hines was so violent a man that his wife thought the devil was in him. When their daughter Milly was eighteen, she sneaked away with a Mexican who worked in a traveling circus. Distraught, Hines began to rant about the sinfulness, the "bitchery and abomination," of women. Convinced that the Mexican was part black, Hines took his horse and his pistol and, without knowing where the couple were, he nevertheless managed to find them easily. Hines's uncanny ability to find his "sinning" daughter is reminiscent of McEachern's equally striking ability to find his eighteen-year-old son, Joe Christmas, when he too sneaked off with his first love. Like McEachern's pursuit of Joe, Hines's chase after Milly also ended in violence. Hines shot the Mexican dead. Later, the circus owner confirmed that the Mexican was part black.
When Light in August was first published, most readers assumed that Joe Christmas was indeed part black. After all, the circus owner confirmed Joe's father's racial identity, and even sympathetic characters like Byron Bunch and the Reverend Hightower don't doubt it. But now almost all readers agree that the novel never makes Joe's racial origins definite.
When Milly was to give birth, Hines refused to let anyone get her a doctor, and she died. He then kidnapped the baby and went away with him for five years. When he came back, the couple moved to Mottstown, and Hines never told his wife that he had left the child at an orphanage. Hines was, of course, the janitor there.
Now you finally know about Joe's earliest experiences, those before even his own earliest memory. Hines was the first, and apparently the most extreme, of a series of religiously motivated, racially obsessed, and sexually repressed people to play important roles in Christmas's life.
Byron asks Hightower to give Christmas an alibi by saying that Christmas was with him rather than with Joanna Burden on the nights that Brown saw Christmas leave their cabin. Byron seems to be suggesting that, to save Christmas, Hightower should imply the existence of a homosexual relationship between himself and Joe. Hightower screams his refusal. He doesn't say that he can't. He says that he won't.