Eudora Welty was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1909.
There are plenty of heavy hitters in Welty’s first collection A Curtain of Green (‘Petrified Man,’ ‘Why I Live at the P.O.,’ ‘Powerhouse,’ ‘A Worn Path’), but none of the stories are as odd and abject as ‘Keela.’ The story’s grotesquerie might first be read as absurd, but underneath is a bedrock of difficult reality. The plot concerns a former carnival barker named Steve, who, with the aid of a local bartender named Max, seeks out a clubfooted black man. This man is Little Lee Roy, who was once Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden: “‘They dressed it in a red dress, and it ate chickens alive,’ [Steve] said. ‘I sold tickets and I thought it was worth a dime, honest.'” There’s so much to unpack in ‘Keela’ that it’s no wonder it isn’t widely anthologized like ‘Why I Live at the P.O.’ or ‘A Worn Path.’ The story resists easy interpretations. Is it about white guilt? Is Little Lee Roy a victim or empowered through the story’s events? How do we untangle the identities Welty knots up in Lee Roy/Keela? An answer – not the answer, but an answer – is that ‘Keela’ shows that America, and in particular the American South, is a freak show con game powered by exploitation.
First published in A Curtain of Green, Doubleday, 1941