The F Words: A Stranger Comes to Town

In literature the stranger-comes-to-town motif is quite common. In films, for example, there’s In the Heat of the Night. There’s Shane. There’s The Brother from Another Planet.

Stranger-comes-to-town is a type of plot, just as seeking revenge is a type, and going on a journey is a type. It’s the skeletal structure on which a writer hangs a story.

The stranger coming to town changes everything. For better or for worse. Definitely for the town, and sometimes for the stranger. In In the Heat of the Night the Virgil Tibbs character, a Black detective from Philadelphia, tracks down and unveils the truth about who murdered Phillip Colbert. The suggestion is that Tibbs has changed the minds of some of the townspeople about racism.

In Shane the stranger is the title character, who comes to “town” (Wyoming territory) and stands up against land robbers, killing three of them in a gun battle. The movie shows that, without Shane, the Starrett family would have been victims of the land robbers. Shane changed the outcome.

The Brother from Another Planet takes “stranger” to a new level: an alien from outer space. The mute alien changes things for those he encounters by repairing things and healing people, suggesting that there is a far better way of living than we on Earth have found.

The three strangers I’ve mentioned change thinking and outcomes in one way or another.

The F Words structure is not hung on the stranger-comes-to-town motif — but there is a stranger who comes to August Mersy High School. That stranger is Treva Soldat, who comes from Portland, Oregon, where, as a student, she has participated in protests against standardized testing and especially against rote teaching for standardized testing. Treva brings that experience of political struggle with her.

Situated on the shores of Lake Michigan, Chicago calls itself the “Third Coast,” probably because it feels so hopelessly Midwestern compared to the East Coast and the West Coast, which hog all the glory. Dressed all in black, Treva comes from the West Coast, with an anarchist tattoo on her wrist. She comes ready to judge liars, cheaters, racists, and self-seekers. And she does not hesitate to speak out.

Treva is a catalyst to the situation Cole and Felipe find themselves in. While they are still angry over Jillian’s racism, Treva is already suggesting battle plans. Cole and Felipe not only understand that battle plans are important, they’re impressed with Treva’s commitment. In no time at all, the three of them have formed a team that will fight for Felipe’s election.

In no time at all, the three of them are fighting for Cole’s re-instatement.

And then they are fighting for the future of one of the characters in the book.

In each case, Cole and Felipe would have and could have fought alone. But in each case, Treva helps make the battle easier by having already been through such a struggle in Portland, or by suggesting alternatives. The difference she makes when she comes to town is that she becomes the third person on the team. (In fact, it’s hard to say if, without a third person, there even is such a thing as a team.) And, a triangle, with three points, is the strongest architectural figure that exists. Treva helps change things at August Mersy High by transforming a very strong two-point relationship into a stronger-still three-point team. 

Unlike Virgil Tibbs, she doesn’t introduce a new way of thinking or looking at the problem: Cole and Felipe already know and understand the problem. Unlike Shane, she doesn’t change the outcome of [most of] the situations. Of the three film examples I’ve given, Treva is most like The Brother in that her knowledge and experience suggest better possibilities.

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