Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Lilies of the Field by William E. Barrett

Barrett was an advertising executive before he became an established writer. His works linger on some twenty years after his death, one book in particular, The Lilies of the Field, partly because of its successful 1963 movie adaptation, directed by Ralph Nelson and starring Sidney Poitier, who won an Oscar for his performance.
Published in 1962, the book depicts a short period in the life of one Homer Smith, a young black American travelling the American West after his discharge from the Army in Fort Lewis, Washington. Accustomed to working his way while travelling and sleeping in his well-equipped station wagon, Smith stops at a farm where he sees women at work but no men.
There are no men because they are nuns, from somewhere in East Germany, who somehow “escaped” Communist rule. Dirt poor, they have work for Smith (whom they call “Schmidt”) but no wages to pay him. Barrett paints Smith as a man with an observant and meditative character, who can get angry at the chief nun for her bossiness, but is sensitive to their plight. They share their food with him and treat him as an equal, showing him a respect and friendliness he doesn’t receive from white Americans. How Smith is unwillingly enrolled in their mission is the crux of the story, interspersed with small meditations that Barrett is good at: on human nature, about work, about music - about the rhythms of labor and of life.
Sidney Poitier (or the movie director), made Smith more invested in himself, in what he was getting from his time with the nuns. In contrast, Barrett's Homer sees the timelessness of each day, how in the end life rolls on and names and deeds can be forgotten. What lasts is the endeavor, the thing that was built and is carried on by other human hands.

(photo from 1963 United Artists film starring Sidney Poitier and Lilia Skala, from website accessed 3/17/11)

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