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The Morning Watch by James Agee

November 16, 2011

In Agee’s Pulitzer-prize-winning, autobiographical novel, A Death in the Family, he tells the devastating story of his father’s death in an auto accident when Agee was a young boy. The Morning Watch, a slim novel, takes place six years later. Many readers view it as a sequel to A Death in the Family.

It is the story of a young man at a Episcopalian boarding school during a few hours on Good Friday, 1924. The boy and fellow students are awakened to sit vigil in chapel late at night. During this time, the boy wrestles with the concepts of his religious teachings, the meanings of the rituals and the depth of his faith. Much of the book takes place in the narrator’s mind as he struggles to maintain focus on his prayers and fights the distractions of the world around him and the wanderings of his mind. In the end, he experiences what is not quite an epiphany, but more of a deeper understanding by imagining the experience of Jesus in the last moments before his crucifixion.

The final part of the novel follows the boy and his schoolmates after the vigil as they sneak out and down to the river for a swim. There, they find and brutally kill a sunbathing snake. Although this is something that might fall into the realm of “normal” for young boys, and although the narrator does nothing to stop it, he is guilt-laden.  Something has clearly changed inside him.

A Death In the Family is a very personal and important book for me, so when I read Daniel Woodrell’s recommendation of The Morning Watch in the notes for Winter’s Bone, I immediately ordered it. Even more so than A Death In The Family, this is an introspective book. On the surface, very little happens. But in the end, we realize that something substantial has happened during the inner wrestling. An awakening has taken place, and Agee masterfully reveals it with subtlety and grace. In the end, I felt a connection with the boy in this novel, and his experience felt very close to my Catholic high school retreats. I don’t know that other readers will feel the same connection to either Agee novel, but both have struck a chord with me.

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