Ellie’s Shack (Beacon #159, 1958)

Here we have probably one of Hitt’s most white trashy backwoodsy tawdry novel, and yet for all its sleaze, we also have one of Hitt’s closest books to actual fine literature — that is, this novel could have been published at the time by any good mainstream house in hardcover like Viking or Scribner and found a literary audience, the kind that read Carson McCullers or William Falkner.  Seriously.

Well, half-seriously. It does succumb to some of the Beacon paperback conventions that hurts it more than helps.

Like many Hitt novels about young women victimized by the sexism of the 1950s, Ellie Rose is surrounded by such degrading circumstances  and poverty that there’s little chance for her ever to climb out of the pit of profiling that is a Pond Girl, a backwoods slut — she’s 19 and built, like any Hitt girl, but didn’t go beyond two years in high school to stay iome and help care for her ailing mother, Belle.

The family lives in a literal three-room plywood shack that may not last another winter.  Elle lives there with her mother and her stepfather, Ducky, and stepbrother, Jake.  Both stepfather and his son have been after Ellie’s body for years, when the mother “ain’t a-lookin’.”  The two men bored a hole in the wall to watch her undress in her room, but she found the hole.  She figures this is all par for the course at Bass Pond.

They survive on catching catfish and clearing out bogs and selling the bounty to a local store, but Ducky tends to buy wine rather than food, and Jake buys parts for his car.  One evening while fishing out on the pond, she meets up with her boyfriend, Jake, and gets all heated up and lets him take her virginity.  She doesn’t know that her stepfather had followed her out so he could make her, and witnessed her and Jude going at it.  Now he knows she’s no virgin, and “by Pond rules” if one man had a girl living under his roof, he has all rights to have a piece of her too.

Ducky had been after her many times before but she had always been able to talk him out of it or run away.  It was different this time, though. He had her cornered in the shed and he knew she had given herself to Jude. Pond county standards decreed that he should enjoy the same…

“I aim to get what I want,” he said thickly. “Now that I know you been doin’ it with Jude,  I ain’t gonna rest until you do it with me. You hear me, Ellie girl? I ain’t gonna stop now.  Ain’t nothin’ gonna stop me.” (pp. 55-56)

He rips her dress off and she screams — her brother Jake comes in and starts fighting with his dad, saying Ducky ain’t gonna be the first to have her, he will.  Soon Elle comes in and breaks it up, Ducky lying and saying he stopped some stranger from raping Ellie.  Ellie can’t say otherwise because Ducky will tell what he say at the pond.

White trash tadriness indeed.

Then one day, drunk on good wine, Ducky falls and breaks the oil lamp (which he tends to do alot) this time setting the shack ablaze.  Now all they have to live in is the shed — one shall shed for the three of them and winter coming. Ellie knows she’s in danger and has to get out.  She could always marry Jude and live with him, or get with the new guy in town, Curt Fuller, the son of the man who owns the pond and all the land around it, that they live on; she can live an easier life that way.

But Curt isn’t as rich as he seems. He’s selling all the land because he’s broke, which means Ellie and her family would have to move, unless they can come up with $600 to pay for 20 acres.

A radio DJ in local town Merchantsville heard of the fire and wants to run a chairty marathon, a plea on the radio to help these poor folk out who have no home.  In comes money, fuiniture, lumber for a new house, and groceries. But the DJ has Ellie on his mind, and takes her for a drive.  At first she fights him off, then desire overwhelms her, as it did with Jude, and she gives in to the man.

She does the same with Curt.  But she falls for him.

The cover art shows a man peeping into a window at a girl, but there’s no window peeping in the book.  Plus, the woman on the cover wears better clothes than Ellie possesses — since Ducky ripped her only dress, all she has is a potato sack dress, a pair of short-shorts and a halter. Se’s never known what it’s like to have panies or a bra.

In some ways, this is a depressing tale, just how awful these people are and how the men treat Ellie and her mother, like dirt, to be used.

A girl’s chastity meant less in the pond country than a bag of eels or catfish. Maybe not even as much as a bag of eels. For some reason, eels were hard to come by in the pond […] a man could get a woman with a lot less trouble than he could catch an eel […] A woman’s body was something to be used, to provide pleasure for the male instinct. It wasn’t a question of right or wrong. It was an accepted part of life along the pond and in the hills. (p. 161)

The ending is a tad odd-kilter — somewhat sappy and romantic, as Curt comes t her rescue one night and fights off drunken  Ducky and Jake from raping her — and cutting off when it feels there should be more.  But at page 186, Hitt had to adhere to the 60K word maximum of paperbacks books at the time; so he had to come to and end.

A damn fine read, though. On the Hitt Scale, a 9.5.

One Response to “Ellie’s Shack (Beacon #159, 1958)”

  1. […] another one of Hitt’s backwoods novels, similar to Ellie’s Shack: it’s about poor white trash living in a shack near a lake, land that […]

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