During the Revolutionary War, the American colonists set out to free themselves from the yoke of the English. The colonists remembered that America had first been settled by people seeking personal freedoms, a luxury which England was withholding. Eventually a Declaration of Independence was issued which proudly proclaimed, "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights." Although the equality of mankind is clearly stated within the Declaration, it is clear that the people of color were not included within the category of "men". Consequently, racism has been an issue in this country since its inception. Hatred has transcended into all fields, and it represents the white man's unyielding fight for domination over the blacks. In " Holly", Albert French has stripped away all barriers allowing two youths to mature while discovering the "meaning" of America.
"Holly" is the story of Holly Hill, a teenager, who by the end of the novel has matured into a woman. Holly is the typical small town American. In her town of Supply, North Carolina, she and her friends run around with youthful abandon, enjoying what life has to offer. Holly also has an innocence about her, which makes her believe that her life is reality. In the town of Supply there is a creek which separates the whites from the blacks. Holly never even dreams what exactly that water separates. In reality, the Negroes on the opposite embankment do not live as well as the whites, even low class ones like Holly. Their land is called the "black lands" a mysterious poverty stricken area which is only visited by whites when there is a need for cheap labor. Holly knows nothing about what lies on the other side of the creek, and for that matter she has no reason to know. Her racist parents have brought her up in a world where there is never any interaction with Negroes, so Holly seems to remain indifferent to them. To Holly, all Negroes represent the shadowy figures who supposedly live across the creek. However, as she grows up her perspectives begin to drastically change.
French is a master observer who wishes to portray to the reader exactly how life was in Supply during the early years of World War II. He employs a thick Southern dialect, while also using a third person narrative. He wastes few words as he methodically delineates the monumental changes in Holly's attitudes towards her friends, her parents, and life in general. The result of this type of narrative is that the deep emotional thoughts of the characters are not explored. Rather, French chooses to separate the reader from the character. From a more distant view the reader is better able to get a feeling of the bigger picture. By employing the third person narrative French allowed the reader to see all people equally, thus avoiding the prejudices which the novel itself tries to right.
French uses the image of the creek as a metaphor for the true separation between blacks and whites. As Holly runs around town she never goes down to the creek. Rather, she chooses to stay as far away from it as possible, trying to pretend that it does not exist. It takes personal tragedy for her to finally confront the schism which will eventually divide her life.
As World War II progressed the town of Supply was seeing more and more of its boys returning home in caskets.
Holly herself was dealt two severe personal blows. When her brother Bobby returned from battle badly maimed, he was considered lucky to be alive. However, he was in such a terrible state that his human dignities were stripped from him. He could no longer speak or eat, and he was confined to a life of loneliness. It would seem that Holly would now realize that life is not as rosy as she made it out to be. However, French goes in the opposite direction. Instead of realizing that life is very real and serious, Holly becomes more jovial than ever. She runs around with her best friend, Elsie, and she even considers breaking off her engagement to a soldier named Billy. With this episode French is showing us what Holly's isolated upbringing has yielded. By being shielded from "the other side of the creek" she grew up to be a shallow, inured individual. She does not know how to deal with people who are in a poorer financial situation than herself. Another aspect of Holly's apathy towards her brother's condition is that she never truly felt comfortable with her family. Her father was an angry drunk, and her mom spent her days trying to keep the family together (not unlike Sons and Lovers). It takes the death of her fiancee, Billy, for her true catharsis to begin. Holly starts to realize that she has lived her entire life running away from the creek, now she wants to go to it. She falls into a deep depression, and she stops caring about material goods and activities. She no longer needs the companionship of the shallow Elsie, rather she needs the serenity of the creek. Holly begins to realize that there is more to life than she had previously been led to believe. It is at this point of the book that Holly becomes a different person. At the creek she meets, and falls in love with Elias Owns. Elias is a black artist who had lost an arm in the war. Like Holly, he has become disillusioned with life and wishes to add more meaning to it. Through her relationship with Elias, Holly learned many valuable lessons about reality. She learned what real love was about; she realized that her child hood was over; she realized that she could not live without Elias, and instead of fighting him she lives through him. It is interesting, however, that Holly does not become a champion for Negro rights. Rather, in her mind she separates Elias from the rest of his race calling him a "Negro" instead of a "nigger". Her shallow upbringing cannot be totally reversed. As the novel concludes French shows us Holly's escape from Supply, while Elias is hanged by Holly's own family.
Holly is told by Elias' parents that he had written to them saying how Holly had given him reason to live. That she had made him want to paint, even if it was with one hand. He was maimed, but Holly had made him do something about it, unlike Bobby who remained bedridden. Holly has been completely transformed. She is able to get up at Elias' funeral and eulogize him to the utmost of her ability. She knew that the truth of Supply was not the real truth. She had gone to the other side of the creek, and she had survived. In " Holly", French does not break any taboos. Many authors have written about the plight of blacks in America, some with even more chilling stories than French's. What does make Holly so remarkable though, is the realism which is portrayed. Although she is white-trash many readers can identify with Holly's fear of crossing that metaphysical creek. The reader sees how even a simple minded person, like Holly, was able to appreciate someone for who he was, rather than what he was. French has taken us to the creek, now we must all try to cross it.