Hey, Sycamore Row-ers! I’m going to jump straight to #7 today and address the theme of forgiveness in the novel. Warning: SPOILERS!
Before I saw the discussion questions, and as I was reading for the first time (I had to re-read in order to prepare for this!), I noticed forgiveness as a theme*, though some of the characters’ behavior belies their intentions. Namely Seth.
If you’ve read the book, by now you know the big reveal: Seth Hubbard left his fortune to Lettie Lang not because he was having an affair with her, not because he was being manipulated by her, and not because he’d lost his mind — but because he was making reparations for his father’s actions. His father, Cleon Hubbard, lynched Lettie’s grandfather, Sylvester Rinds, over a land dispute. The tree where Seth hangs himself is the very tree that Sylvester hung from himself (and Seth knows this because he and his brother Ancil watched this as children). This awful act that scattered the Rinds family has apparently haunted Seth his whole life, and perhaps because he’s such a rotten old grump, he can only ask for forgiveness through death.
Seth is not a super-sympathetic character. Even in this last act, he tells no one his intentions AND his will is full of nasty messages for his family. I especially enjoyed the parts about his two ex-wives: “I have two ex-wives who I will not name. Since they got virtually everything in the divorces, they get nothing more here. I specifically exclude them. May they perish in pain, like me” (21). Ouch! No, he’s not bitter. I’m also no lawyer, but is it common for ex-spouses to be given something in wills? Maybe this is a trend I’m unaware of! He does have some kind words for his brother Ancil (“He was a lost boy who deserved better” ) but only leaves him 5%. Of course, 5% of $24,000,000 is nothing to sneeze at; it’s just the way it sounds.
I do understand why Seth specifically excluded his ex-wives, but you’d think that even a crusty old booger like Seth would leave a few pennies to his children. They didn’t mistreat him; they reacted to his prickly personality appropriately. I hate to say that I sympathize with Herschel and Ramona, but I wish there was more about the reasons he cut them out completely. He could’ve thrown them a 1% bone and let his grandchildren go to college! This wouldn’t have diminished Lettie’s portion.
So…in essence, to ask for forgiveness from Lettie and her family, Seth intentionally makes it difficult for Lettie to receive the money. He specifically says in his letter to Jake that he knows it’ll be a battle…so, like, SETH, why not say, “Hey y’all, I’m leaving this to Lettie because of unspoken family atrocities! That’s all you need to know!”? I guess the answer to that is that Sycamore Row would then be a 30-page short story instead of a 447-page novel.
Besides Lettie and Seth/Sylvester and Cleon, there is also the portion of the book that deals with Lettie’s husband Simeon’s drunk driving accident that leaves two brothers, Kyle and Bo Roston, dead. The one good thing about this is that it is essentially Simeon’s exit from the book. (See ya!) What this also does is give the reader a chance to see that this book really is about forgiveness. The scene where Mr. Roston comes to visit Jake reiterates this. Roston meets with Jake to pass along a message to the Langs: that he and his wife forgive Simeon for his actions, and cites the Gospel of Luke: “‘When we bury Kyle and Bo tomorrow, when we say good-bye, we will do so with complete love and forgiveness. There’s no room for hatred, Jake'” (278). Jake is stunned, and can’t imagine getting to that level of forgiveness. For that matter, neither can I.
What about you? Could you forgive in similar circumstances? What do you think of Seth’s way of asking for forgiveness from Lettie? Let us know below in the comments!
*I’m aware of themes because I used to be an English teacher, and as you probably know, English teachers love themes. In case you’re ever in a bind and someone asks you what the theme of something is, “good vs. evil” almost always fits. Try it!