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SECTION ONE: THE SCHOOLHOUSE
This chapter is the story of Willie Stark's rise to power and the role Jack Burden plays in it. The story begins in 1922, a few months after Jack first met Willie. At the time, Jack is a reporter for the capital city Chronicle. His managing editor tells him that there seems to be a battle going on in the Mason County courthouse-"that fellow Stark" against the local political machine. The battle concerns the bids for building the new schoolhouse. Jack's job is to find out what is going on.
Like Chapter 1, this chapter opens with a description of the road to Mason City. Jack compares his first trip, in 1922, with his last one, in 1936. But unlike the first chapter, this one quickly turns from description to dialogue. Jack and his editor engage in a lively, yet slightly hostile, conversation in which Jack exhibits a subtle wit and an understanding of the politics of the state. About the similarities between county and state politics, Jack says: "They run 'em up there just like they run 'em down here." In other words, the "good ol' boy" system that often leads to corrupt political practices is found throughout the state.
In Mason City, Jack sits with the "old ones" on a bench in front of the harness shop. He describes the bench as a place "where Time gets tangled in its own feet." He sits there, hoping to hear some gossip about the schoolhouse issue. But he does not learn much from the old ones, except that they are against Willie because he wants to bring in a "passel of niggers" and put "white folks out of work." As Jack says, Mason County is redneck country.
Next, Jack goes into the courthouse, where he meets the Sheriff and Dolph Pillsbury, the chairman of the County Commissioners. These men are every bit as racist as the old ones on the bench, but their racism is much more dangerous. Together, they run the local political machine. But Jack does not learn much from them, either.
The old ones, the Sheriff, and Pillsbury come across as stereotypes. Jack sees them as onedimensional characters. They fit the familiar pattern of small-town, Southern rednecks.
Stereotyping people is, of course, difficult to avoid in everyday life and in fiction writing. All of us, from time to time, categorize people into types-liberal or conservative, sophisticated or provincial. Why do we stereotype people? Why does Jack do so here? Is Jack himself a stereotype?
Down the hall is Willie Stark's office. Jack describes it as "the one-man leper colony of Mason City." Here, Willie begins telling Jack his side of the schoolhouse story. He finishes it about eleven o'clock that night at his father's farm.
Willie tells Jack what he came to hear. Indeed, there are some political shenanigans going on in Mason City. Willie became county treasurer because he is a distant relative of Pillsbury. At least, that was part of the reason. And all was going reasonably well until the bond issue for the new schoolhouse was passed. Several contractors submitted estimates for building the schoolhouse. Willie wanted to accept the lowest bid, made by a large downstate firm that employed many skilled Negro laborers. But Pillsbury and his cronies insisted on accepting the bid from J. H. Moore. Moore, it turns out, had an interest in a brick kiln owned by Pillsbury's brother-in-law.
Willie protested. But Pillsbury countered his protests by screaming "nigger-lover" and "white unemployment." Because of community pressure, Willie's wife, Lucy, then lost her teaching job. Willie continued fighting against the Moore bid. He pointed out that there were two bids between the lowest bid and Moore's bid. Why not accept one of these if the Pillsbury group was dissatisfied with the downstate firm? Further, he knew that the Moore brick kiln had recently been sued for making rotten bricks. The community did not listen.
Jack takes Willie's story back to the Chronicle. The Chronicle is happy to get it, the first of several articles portraying Willie as a folk hero. But Mason County is not the only place where political skulduggery is going on. The Chronicle also discovers corrupt practices in the courthouses throughout the state. Thus, Jack comes to realize that his newspaper is bent on shaking up the state political machine. Meanwhile, Willie goes to work on the race for county treasurer but doesn't have a chance of winning the election. The community has typed him as a "nigger-lover." And even the local press refuses to run his ads or to print his handbills.
Willie loses the election by a landslide. He continues to live and work on his father's farm. He peddles Fix-It Household Kits. And late at night he studies law.
Then Fate steps in. About two years after the new schoolhouse is built, there is a fire drill. A metal fire escape pulls loose from the brick wall and falls-the bricks were rotten. Three children are killed and a dozen or so are seriously injured. The people remember Willie's opposition to the Moore bid and feel punished for voting against an honest man. This tragic incident, Jack says, is Willie's luck.