Brothers, Sisters, and Lost Innocence


Growing up in southern Alabama I was always the outdoor type because even in the 1980s and 1990s a young boy couldn’t do much other than run around outside barefooted and climb trees. I was the archetypal Southern boy. I took my first job in the fields at the age of 14 hauling watermelons. Rather, I was either tossing them to another underage worker for him to throw to someone on a trailer or I was slinging them up myself. I distinctly remember my first day. It was typical early June weather with the sun beaming directly down on my skin with an occasional cloud making its way by. By lunchtime, my biceps were already cramping, and I was exhausted from the heat. I was a young teenager torn from a world with a sense of security. By no means had I lived a sheltered life; I said I did know how to run around barefooted. However, I was much like John who was learning the true meaning of what it meant to be Southern and poor in 1950s Alabama. I felt that moment when “he realized something was wrong” as “his eyes were beginning to swell shut” and didn’t think he could “walk in a straight line” (65). He was an eight-year-old boy in Pat Cunningham Devoto’s novel Out of the Night That Covers Me struggling with the hardships of working out in the fields that had never used a hoe before. He was taken from an overprotected life and thrust into a world not his own that he would have to “learn to live with” (65).

According to Wayne Greenhaw, John is “weighted with the thrill of human struggle, looking ahead for a light in the darkness,” as he grows in to Southernhood in Devoto’s coming of age novel (Greenhaw). Taken away from a sheltered life of books and toys, the eight-year-old must learn how to cope with the hardships of life. “From here on out, he’s on a sharp learning curve about life,” mentions Monique Cavelier (Cavelier). However, John is not without relief from the burdens of hoeing the cotton fields and an abusive, alcoholic uncle. He grows from a previously sheltered young boy into a young man beyond his years who’s lost his innocence, representing the struggle of the lower-class South, meeting Shell and Willie, two people around his age, despite never feeling “at ease with people his own age,” who help him along his journey and ultimately share a common childhood bond (179).

Lost Innocence

John went through many changes throughout Devoto’s novel. He started out as an eight-year-old who “the harshest word he knew” was “idiot” (4). He eventually became a boy who thought the people at church “were disgusting, all dressed up in their fancy Sunday clothes” and “probably never did a real day’s work in their life” (127). Through her novel, Devoto “shows the metamorphosis of John from immaturity to wisdom, restoring faith in the way that humanity can overcome the worst of beginnings as long as they do not give up,” (Watson).

By the end of the novel, John has drastically changed. He hasn’t become a man yet, but he has gained the experience that will propel him into manhood. He tells himself out loud in front of the Judge, “I always thought of comin’ back here…but when I thought of it, I thought of comin’ back the way it used to be” (405). John learns that life is ever changing. Not so because the world is in a constant state of motion, but because growing up is. Innocence is stripped from the young through experience. A world of accidentality, which experience comes from, takes that innocence. John is the person described by William Ernest Henley “In the fell clutch of circumstance…Under the bludgeoning of chance” who has “not winced nor cried aloud…head is bloody, but unbowed” (Henley). He is the young male hero who must become “the captain of my [his] own soul” (Henley). From the moment he moved to Lower Peach Tree, to the Bend, and then back again, he learned this harsh lesson. Albeit, he may have been much too young to take on that kind of life lesson, he did so nonetheless.

The good-mannered boy who appeared on the first pages of the novel is not the same boy on the last pages. Joyce Fay Fletcher, Jackie Gropman, and Susan Woodcock described John, before being taken away from his home in Bainbridge, as a boy trained “in the finer points of social society” who eventually represents “the unfair socioeconomic conditions of Southern states during the 1950s” (Fletcher). He is literally forced into a world that is foreign to him, just as the blacks from Africa had been. However, he is not the white representative of the black community. He is the representative of the struggle of the working-class South. Wayne Greenhaw describes him as a character that goes “from a frightened boy to the seeker of a dream” (Greenhaw). He is the struggling lower class because he is taken out of a home where he was coddled and placed into the_ real_ of the South. John becomes the archetypal Southern child whose innocence is taken away and replaced by the experience of lower class Southern life.

Brothers and Sisters

He first meets Shell when he arrives at his new home with his Uncle Luther and Aunt Nelda. On the farm where he “trades his beloved books for a hoe,” he doesn’t immediately form a bond with Luther and Nelda’s daughter (Burns). It would take some time for that to form. John had to learn how to become lower class Southern. He had to learn how to hoe weeds away from cotton plants. He had to learn “nice manners,” which Shell explained to him as “makin’ sure you got your hat on ‘fore you scald the fire outta yourself…not steppin’ on a cottonmouth when you’re playin’ in the creek” (72). It was the first time he had heard a subject as graceful as manners broached by someone who had clearly not been taught anything proper in her life. Nevertheless, it formed their bond. She and John were becoming closer, something to the resemblance of siblings.

The well educated John and Shell who was not troubled with an excess of teaching became a pair. At first, John was reluctant to admit he was growing to love his newfound sister, but he began doing small things for her like picking a “maypop flower” in order to help the “decoration of her frog house” (84). Of course, she took the maypop, “but only out of politeness…maypops did not belong on frog houses” (84).

John’s first interaction with Shell was when she was carrying water out to the cotton field on his first day out there. Uncle Luther tells her that she could give him her “bonnet to keep the sun off” John’s sun burnt head (63). However, she quickly tells him that he’s “gonna get fierce doggin’ wearin’ girl clothes like this here,” but John takes the bonnet anyway, even with his eventual embarrassment when Little Luther and Uncle Luther spot him (63). What’s important here is the beginning of that bond that he and Shell would eventually make. From day one, she is the one person in his new life that doesn’t make him feel like an outsider so much as the others.

The moment that officially made Shell his sister was when he gave her a “cutout colored baby doll” from “one of the fertilizer sacks” that he had sewn together himself (234). His original “motive had not been to make her happy but to get back at Uncle Luther” (234). With Shell not knowing his intent, she was happy because it was probably the nicest gift she had ever received. This is what brothers are supposed to do for their sisters, try to give them a sense of security by acts that show they care, in at least some small way. John had “felt terrible” when “remembering the tears in Shell’s eyes when she took the doll, he felt like crying himself” (235). He could never openly express his love for her, but he held it deep within his heart.

The next bond John formed with another child was with the younger Willie after arriving at the Bend. The two boys quickly became friends, even with John being white and Willie being black. Willie made life much easier on John by teaching him how to live in the tight-knit community of the Bend. This friendship ultimately formed the brotherhood John had been missing in his life. Even though Willie was younger, he was immediately the big brother in their relationship.

On their ride out into the swamp to gig frogs Willie was John’s teacher of this new hunting activity. After all, Willie had already taught him how to navigate the swamp and “agreed to let John do all the poling this time” (313). Willie showed John the art of frog gigging, and after numerous tries, John “got better—not good, but better—holding the spear at the proper angle, as Willie had taught him” (314). The boys were forming a bond that spanned across racial boundaries, the most dangerous boundaries in 1950s rural Alabama. These were boundaries of not only race, but social class as well, at least John’s former social class and Willie’s now. These differences were clearly shown when the boys “would look up at the passing clouds and tell what they saw” (329). John, remembering his past life and experiences, always saw things he had read about in books, knights and cowboys and Indians“ (329). Willie, on the other hand, imagined the future that “his mother had told him about, things from Chicago, tall buildings, and ‘peoples, armies of peoples marchin’ along’” (329). The boys knew no racial lines. They were friends; they were confidants; they were brothers.

John proved his loyalty and his love for Willie during the moment he became the big brother. Protecting his little brother from a snake, he “pushed Willie forward off of the pile and brought the wood around much too slowly” swinging at the creature which “had all the time in the world to sink his fangs into John’s left arm” (335). John had protected his brother by chancing his own life. Willie was the proudest though, over telling the story of “snake and boy, wrestling with each other as Willie [he] ran toward him with a hoe” (336). He and his brother had killed the beast, sharing a familial bond that both of them would carry with them through life. They were brothers. Slaying the cottonmouth saw to that, if they didn’t already know it. John had experienced and felt a love he could not with Shell, a brotherly love. It gave him a sense of belonging, of being part of a family once again, a feeling that he hadn’t felt since he moved to lower Alabama.


The many experiences John endures, and the people he meets that accompany those experiences, ultimately changed who John McMillan is; and that person is someone who has gone through a life-altering journey. The bookworm he was at the beginning of the novel is much different from the boy “with arms browned and muscled” that he became along this journey (408). Devoto devoted her time in carefully crafting a realistic look at the rural South in the 1950s by dropping an eight-year-old boy in the middle of working-class Alabama, and letting him live through the harsh cruelties of growing up with nothing. As John looked back on “everything he thought he was” being “scattered in the dirt…he couldn’t remember why he had been so upset by it, but that had been years ago, when he was a child” (409). He learned, just as I had learned so many years ago in a watermelon field, that life is a matter of circumstance. It is the uncertainness of experience, and how he deals with it, that shapes him into the man he will eventually become.

Justin Tadlock, Brothers, Sisters, and Lost Innocence

In Pat Cunningham Devoto’s 2001 novel Out of the Night That Covers Me, the author explores the socioeconomic aspects of the Alabama working-class of the 1950s. She places her main character, an eight-year-old John McMillan, into the rural area of Lower Peach Tree, Alabama. Along his journey, John forms a bond with two children who help him endure the hardships of transitioning from a sheltered life to one of abuse, sweat, and sunburn. Throughout his journey, his childhood innocence is stripped away as he learns to deal with the circumstantialities of life to become a young man. In the end, he comes to a place where he is no longer a boy, but is ready to make decisions that will prepare him for his life ahead.

Works Cited