Anne Tyler recalls that as a young child she often made up stories, “Westerns, usually,” in which she pretended to be other people. “So far as I can remember,” she says, “mostly I wrote first pages of stories about lucky, lucky girls who got to go West in covered wagons,” and later, “I was truly furious that I’d been born too late to go west in a covered wagon” (Petry, ed., CritEss 42; Petry, “Intro” 5; Tyler, “SJW” 13). Although she never attempted to fulfill that early yen for a covered-wagon journey west, Tyler obviously never forgot it either. She refers to it at times when asked about her childhood, and an inkling of it occasionally appears in her fiction, as in “The Feather behind the Rock.” By the time this title first appeared in the August 12 issue of the New Yorker in 1967, Tyler already had two novels and 15 other stories to her credit. Although she had moved two months earlier to Baltimore, which would become the principal setting for her fiction to follow, “The Feather behind the Rock” had been written while she still resided in North Carolina, where the story begins.
It relates Joshua’s experience as a recent high school graduate on a cross-country drive from Wilmington to San Francisco with his elderly grandparents, Charles and Lucy Hopper, who have invited him to join them, specifying “no reason for the trip” (Tyler, “Feather” 154). Because the story is narrated from a limited third-person perspective, readers know what Joshua sees, hears, and thinks, yet nearly all the dialogue is that of his grandparents. By perceiving everything that Joshua does as well as the way he responds to the experience, readers can consider his point of view from their own vantage point and recognize along with his patience and kindliness toward his grandparents, a misunderstanding of their seemingly peculiar behavior, especially toward each other. As they travel, the fl ow of gentle words between them, mostly a reiteration of familiar old memories, appears as endless to Joshua as the countless stream of miles they leave behind. They travel in an aging car towing a small trailer at a steady 35 miles an hour, never stopping to see sights along the way.
If the Hoppers appear a little odd, they typify Tyler’s characterization. She says, “I write about . . . off-beat characters and the blend of laughter and tears because in my experience, that’s what real life consists of” (Petry, UAT 6). “People have always seemed funny and strange to me, and touching in unexpected ways,” she admits; “even the most ordinary person . . . will turn out to have something unusual at his center” (Teisch 22). She plumbs her characters for their extraordinary core and celebrates that in portraying and individualizing them.
Joshua does not mind the drive or the constant drone of voices in a dialogue to which he can contribute little, but he is disturbed to the point of anger over the Hoppers’ practice of seeing western films at local theaters every evening when they stop overnight. Even then Mrs. Hopper continues to speak in an ordinary tone of voice to her husband as he holds her arthritic hand. She describes what they can all see for themselves on the screen and what it obviously suggests: The Indian cannot be trusted, and the man with “a mean face” is the villain (“Feather” 156). Joshua is embarrassed by the loudness of her voice in the otherwise quiet theater and the simplemindedness of her responses to movies that leave nothing to guesswork. One evening he becomes so upset that he abruptly leaves the theater, then feels ashamed.
Because they travel in summer, the daily temperature is so high in the car that Mrs. Hopper faints when they stop at an isolated roadside café for water. Joshua, dreadfully afraid, urges his grandfather to take her home; a passing doctor offers to help, but being touched on her cheeks with the water revives her, and she insists on continuing the ride. On returning to the car, Mr. Hopper restarts the “the tide of his words,” and again they set off “along straight unchanging roads, . . . rounding the curve of the globe” (162). Watching another western that evening, the two oldsters hold hands as usual while Mrs. Hopper again describes what appears on the screen. “That last wagon is dropping too far behind. Yes, there. I see a pony on the ridge, I see a feather behind the rock. I expect the Apaches are lining up now, Charles. I can hear the war cries” (162).
Because the incident earlier that day frightens Joshua but not his grandparents, their journey continues as if uninterrupted. Still preoccupied with their bygone days together and their devotion to formula westerns, they continue feeding their obsession with the past while Joshua eagerly looks forward not only to the road but also to college soon after their return home.
Yet this journey eventually will prove more significant to him than he can realize as he rides, because he is in the presence, for days on end, of his grandparents’ undying love for each other, two people who have been together for most of a lifetime, long enough to accept each other as they are and share each other’s eccentricities without complaint. Robert W. Croft’s observation that “Tyler’s love for her grandparents is apparent in her treatment of elderly characters in her work” (Croft 7) applies well to this story. Joshua, sensitive and tolerant as he is, has “a sort of protective feeling toward” his grandparents (“Feather” 157), but he cannot see yet, as readers can, that their long drive toward the setting sun is a ride that parallels life’s journey as it carries them past familiar representations of the past, western by western, across the land. Tyler implies that it may end soon, at least for Mrs. Hopper, who observes shortly after fainting beside the road that “the last wagon is dropping too far behind” and that “a feather behind the rock” foreshadows harm or death to its occupants, perhaps even to her. By the time Joshua begins college, he will have learned through his experience with the Hoppers that words may be a facade for love as well as an expression of it and that its presence alone constitutes a manner of communication that may be superior to any other.
To be sure, Tyler has had reservations for years about verbal communication. She asserts, “I don’t think it’s necessary or desirable in a lot of cases” (Petry, CritEss 39). She would surely agree that the loving relationship of the Hoppers speaks for itself and that their words are less significant as communication than as mutual recollection, in Joshua’s presence, of a long, full life together. Eventually he will appreciate the mutual support that underlies the love of his garrulous grandparents for each other.
Croft, Robert W. Anne Tyler: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995. Evans, Elizabeth. Anne Tyler. New York: Twayne, 1993. Petry, Alice Hall, ed. “Introduction.” In Critical Essays on Anne Tyler. New York: G. K. Hall, 1992. ———. Understanding Anne Tyler [UAT]. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990. Tyler, Anne. “The Feather behind the Rock.” In A Duke Miscellany: Narrative and Verse of the Sixties. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1970. ———. “Still Just Writing [SJW].” In The Writer on Her Work, edited by Janet Sternburg. New York: W. W. Norton, 1980. Teisch, Jessica. “Anne Tyler.” In Bookmarks, November– December 2006, pp. 22–27. Voelker, Joseph C. Art and the Accidental in Anne Tyler. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.