The story begins in New York as a young immigrant Scandinavian woman gives birth to a daughter: "She entered, as Venus from the sea, dripping. The air enclosed her, she felt it all over her, touching, waking her." The time is at the turn of the 20th century, the baby's name is Flossie, and she is the second child of Joe and Gurlie Stecher. Joe is a printer, who takes great pride in his craftsmanship. He had once been a union activist, but became disillusioned with union corruption and now works as a shop foreman. Gurlie's driving ambition is for she and her husband to strike it rich and make their mark in this new land, where the streets are paved in gold (for some people).

Flossie turns out to be a sickly baby. At first, she won't nurse at all and almost dies of malnutrition and infection. Later, she remains so scrawny that a doctor claims the only way to save her life is to take her to live in the country. Thus, Gurlie and her two children travel to upstate New York for the summer, where they board with an aged Norwegian couple. While there, the baby begins to thrive, and so does Gurlie, who had spent her early childhood on a farm in Scandinavia.

Soon after Flossie's birth, the printers' union calls a strike. Joe successfully holds the line and keeps the shop running, but his grateful employers are not grateful enough even to give him a raise. Toward the end of the book, he negotiates with another businessman to obtain the wherewithal to start his own printing company.


White Mule is the first of a trilogy of novels by William Carlos Williams about the immigrant Stecher family. The other two novels are In the Money and The Build Up (all three books are available in New Directions editions). The "White Mule" of the title refers to Flossie, the angry, assertive, uncompromising baby, who can kick like White Mule whiskey.

In a sense the book is Flossie's story, although Joe and Gurlie tend to generate the narrative. The principal features we know about Flossie are her extreme neediness and her indomitable will. At first it seems as if she could die at any time; later, it becomes apparent that she will make her way in the world, perhaps achieving the American Dream that her parents, especially her mother, can only hope for. While reading this Flossie's story, I couldn't help thinking about her in relation to the author's steadfast and long-suffering wife, Florence (Flossie) Williams.


First published: 1937


New Directions

Place Published

New York



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