To commemorate the 125th anniversary of the first publication of Crockett's bestselling collection 'The Stickit Minister and other common men' this is the first of three critical reviews. This review covers the title story 'The Stickit Minister' which is the first of a trilogy of stories about Robert Fraser.
Critical review of The Stickit Minister
The title story of Crockett’s collection opens with a wonderfully evocative pastoral view. Perhaps rural rather than pastoral. The ‘bask blowy day’ and ‘snell’ weather takes us instantly into 19th century rural Scotland as easily as a Van Gogh landscape takes us into the 19th century rural France.
Cairn Edward is a fictionalised version of Castle Douglas, a small market town in South West Scotland. Crockett grew up in this environment and his writing offers a realistic picture of the landscape and the people.
The third person narrator introduces us to the title character, Robert Fraser and to Saunders McQuhirr. These are both drawn from life: Crockett’s second cousin Robert is the template for the ‘stickit minister’ and his grandfather William is the template for Saunders.
Robert Fraser is about to impart a secret. Saunders is reticent to hear. Fraser explains how a trip to the doctor led him to make a choice, which we might interpret as a sacrifice. It is a choice based on a realistic understanding of his prospects, in both financial and practical terms. He takes what he sees as the only sensible course of action. The blow which has fallen on him is not one he wants to impact on either his brother or his beloved. His decision will have a detrimental impact on them both all the same.
late one night I saw my way clear to what I should do. Harry must go, I must stay. I must come home to the farm, and be my own ‘man’, then I could send Harry to the college to be a doctor, for he had no call to the ministry as once I thought I had. More than that, it was laid on me to tell Jessie Loudon that Robert Fraser was no better than a machine set to go five year.
We might read this as a loss of faith, or simple pragmatism. Either way, the choice made, Fraser gets on with his lot. Because he kept his reasons secret, he has been vilified by the aspirational society around him, becoming the butt of their jokes and labelled a ‘stickit’ minister. This is not strictly accurate in any sense, given that a ‘stickit’ minister was actually one who could not get a ‘living’ and in fact Fraser never completed his training. He is more a ‘stickit’ man than a ‘stickit’ minister and even then, he is only ‘stickit’ in the eyes of those who do not know the truth. Basically, he is seen as a failure and he lives with that slander in order (as he sees it) to give his brother and his beloved better chances in an uncertain world.
Crockett shows that Fraser’s decision, while worthy of the man, backfires on him. His brother, though a combination of lack of understanding and lack of character, fails to appreciate the sacrifice and remains demanding; while his beloved marries on the rebound. Neither brother nor beloved understands why Fraser has acted as he has. Thus neither is in a position to make good choices, and so it is perhaps inevitable that his sacrifice will, to some degree, be unsuccessful in outcome.
But Crockett is eager to show the goodness of the man.
‘it was laid on me to be my brother's keeper.’ says Fraser. And he has tried to live up to his responsibilities. His illness no doubt were a main part of why he failed in his farming endeavours, but we cannot help but see Henry as ungrateful at the least. While we see Henry thus, Robert refuses to blame his brother. Crockett, though, leaves us in no doubt as to which man is the ‘greater.’ Thus he reveals that the ‘common man’ has more worth than the Doctor – a position reminiscent of Burns. It offered, and still offers, a challenge to those in the professions, those with aspirational leanings. The story can be read from multiple perspectives (a fact Crockett was doubtless well aware of) but it is surely hard for anyone to side with Henry rather than Robert.
Robert has been unsuccessful both in his farming and in his struggle for life. As he reveals to Saunders that he is about to lose his tenancy, Saunders responds with reasonable and passionate indignation. Fraser delivers the killer blow, making it clear to Saunders that he is dying and such things are no longer of any importance to him. The underplaying of the word ‘flit’ for death, far from being melodramatic, shows a poignant use of language. This is a tour de force of short story writing for its depth and skill and has plenty to reveal to modern readers and writers.
Read the story for yourself online HERE at McStorytellers
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