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PLOT SUMMARY (Synopsis)
A child stands limp in the middle of the living room at six in the morning, his father getting him ready for the baby-sitter who's come to get him. It's cold, and the father is impatient. The mother is sick. The father says he won't expect the boy back until 8 or 9. Mrs. Connin says they are going to see the Reverend Bevel Summers, and that they may be back late. The father almost forgets to say good bye to the boy.
Mrs. Connin and the boy leave. She tells him to wipe his nose, but he has no handkerchief and so she uses hers and gives it to him. She asks him his name. "Bevel," he says. Well, she says this is quite a coincidence, since that is also the preacher's name. She says her husband is away at a government hospital, doesn't believe in faith healers. Bevel says he is hungry, and she says she'll fix him something when they get to her house. She takes him on her lap, and they both fall asleep.
After walking a half mile to her house, Bevel discovers that she has three boys and a tall girl, all bigger than him. Inside, they watch him, and he looks at the pictures on the wall. There's a man with a face like a bare cliff--Mrs. Connin says that is Mr. Connin. There's another picture of a man with long hair and gold on his head, sawing a board. Before he can ask who that is, the boys want him to go outside, but not really in a friendly way. He goes, cautiously, having been beat up by bigger boys before.
These suddenly seem a little more cautious themselves. They take him over to a spot where he can smell animals and hear some grunting. One of the bigger boys says, "She'd kill us," and instead of dumping Bevel in the pig pen, they persuade him that he should loosen a board on the bottom and peek inside. He does, but a big pig comes rushing out and barrels over him and runs all over the place and under the flimsy house and Mrs. Connin is mad but it takes her a long time to calm Bevel down and tell him he is all right. He won't even look at that pig again, the one she says looks like Mr. Paradise who always comes to spoil the healings.
They all walk to the river together, Bevel holding Mrs. Connin's hand--he liked her, and had already found out from her this morning that he had been made by a carpenter named Jesus Christ. He'd thought Jesus Christ was a swear word. She'd shown him a pretty picture book of bible stories, belonging to her great grandma and published in 1932. It was her most prized possession. When she wasn't looking, he stuffed it in his coat with the handkerchief.
The little group is almost late to the ceremony with the Reverend Bevel--it has already started. People stand around, and a young man stands with his pants rolled up, in the river. He starts to preach, saying how he doesn't heal people. If they are there for that, he doesn't do it. He's here to bring them into the River of the Life, the River of Love, the river of pain where they can leave all their troubles with the blood of Jesus. He wants to bring them to Jesus. Only then can they be healed. Bevel watches, and watches the sky and hills. A couple of people wade into the river, and a man says that they haven't changed none, they aren't getting healed. The preacher says again that he never promised that. Another man goes in, comes out. A woman says she's seen the preacher heal people. Then Mrs. Connin says that this boy here has a mother who is sick, and he could be baptized--probably hasn't been. The preacher takes Bevel and stands in the river with him, all serious. Bevel puts his head on the man's shoulder and doesn't really know what the man is saying, but he's says he wants to be baptized. Then he could go in the river. The preacher dunks his head and he is surprised. He does it again. Mrs. Connin says not to forget the mama. Then Bevel says yeah, his mama hasn't got up yet, she has a hangover--and Mr. Paradise laughs out loud, Sure, cure that.
It's late when Mrs. Connin brings him home, and there is a party going on. She tells them that Bevel was a good boy. Bevel? his mother says. She is on the couch, dressed in tight black pants and high heels. Mrs. Cronnin says yes, same as the preacher, and the preacher baptized him, too. The mother is angry--the nerve! Then Mrs. Cronnin says they also prayed for her, Bevel's mother, to be healed from her affliction--and then she leaves without taking any money, in disgust.
The boy, whose name is Harry, doesn't say much about what happened when his mother questions him. She wants to know what they said about her. She finds the book and the handkerchief in his wet coat, and some of her guests look at the book and exclaim that is it very valuable, an old book like that. Harry goes to bed.
When Harry wakes up the next morning the house is all closed up dark but it is not early and there are still ashtrays and stuff left over from the party. His parents, he knows, won't be up for a long time. He looks for food in the refrigerator and overturns some ashtrays, and looks for his book--it's gone. His shoes are still damp, and looking at them gives him an idea.
He took a token and some Life Savers out of his mother's pocket book, and gets on the trolley line and follows all the paths he took yesterday with Mrs. Cronnin to get to the meeting on the river. He gets a little lost, and Mr. Paradise sees him and follows him, thinking something is not right. The old man loses sight of Harry. But Harry finds the river, and goes in. He doesn't see the man, but looks over the landscape and the river and decides he will baptize himself this time.
But the river won't have him. It keeps shoving him back up, choking him. He thinks it is all a trick, just another trick, and this is no special river, no special kingdom under there. He splashes, mad, and Mr. Paradise sees him and comes after him. But the man reminds him of the horrible pig and he leaps under one more time and the river takes him this time, in the current, shoves him down and takes him just like he thought, gentle, and his fear leaves him.
The old man searches and searches and finally comes up down- stream, empty-handed, like a sad, ancient sea monster.
This story is a standard, child-viewpoint, O'Connor story. Harry is a typical child, with some slightly a-typical things going on around him. It would be unfair to say that this is the story of a neglected child who finds, unfortunately, solace in the river. Perhaps it reflects the everyday lives and everyday mishaps that regular people encounter. Tragic, yes, but simply a part of living in an imperfect world.
After all, Harry does feel that he finds the peace he wanted. He is too young to realize what death is, and is so fascinated by nature, and then the bizarre promise of the preacher, that he is perfectly willing to go along, to search for what he wants and satisfy his curiosity. The tragedy may belong to Mr. Paradise (again, note her use of naming) who is a cynic, and maybe rightly so: he sees a young boy drown, and he intended to save him--in quite a different way than the preacher intended to save him. Is, then, Harry actually "saved"?