Mark Twain’s “A Trial”

Capt. Ned Blakely – that name will answer as well as any other fictitious one (for he was still with the living at last accounts, and may not desire to be famous) – sailed ships out of the harbor of San Francisco for many years.

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In reading through Mark Twain’s short stories, I knew I would eventually have to grapple with material that would be considered offensive by today’s standards and his story “The Trial” contains just such material.

But it’s difficult to say whether the overarching story in theme is offensive or just the racial slurs used.

Bill Noakes, the nemisis of Captain Ned Blakely, kills a favorite African shipmate of Blakely’s. Noakes is seen doing the killing by numerous witnesses so when Blakely goes to hang Noakes, he is taken by surprise when everyone insists on a “fair” trial.

The setup seems to move the story toward a trial where Noakes is found innocent in spite of his obvious crime. But, no, that’s not what happens. He’s found guilty and he’s hanged.

If there is humor in this story, it went over my head – or perhaps its simply not as timeless as much of Twain’s humor is. Would the ending have been a surprise to Twain’s readers in 1872? Would Twain’s 1872 readers have found something funny in this story? Or did Mark Twain just decide that some of his stories didn’t need to be funny?

 

Donald Barthelme: The Balloon (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 12)

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…there were no situations, simply the balloon hanging there – muted grays and browns for the most part, constrasting with walnut and soft yellows.

Meaning takes on a whole new meaning in Donald Barthelme’s 1966 story “The Balloon”. As a giant balloon inflates over a significant part of New York City, much discussion ensues over what it means by the narrator. Is the narrator the one responsible for the balloon? Possibly? What is the balloon? The narrator acknowledges these as logical questions, but of course there are no real answers – just descriptions of how the balloon influences New York City life – and it doesn’t influence life nearly as much as one might think.

As the quotation above implies, in many ways, this is more like a painting than a story until we get to the final paragraph. That’s where a semblance of meaning, of purpose, of plot begins – just as the story ends.

As unusual as Barthelme’s story is, it is easily in the top three stories I’ve read so far for Deal Me In 2017 and I can see it making its way to the top ten at the end of the year. I highly recommend it!

I read “The Balloon” when I selected the Nine of Diamonds for Week 12 of my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. It’s included in my copy of Wonderful Town: New York Stories from the New Yorker edited by David Remnick. My Deal Me In List can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted byJay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

Mark Twain’s “Tom Quartz”

Whenever he was out of luck and a little downhearted, he would fall to mourning over the loss of a wonderful cat…

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“Tom Quartz” is another of Mark Twain’s stories that is actually a story within a story. It reminds me a little of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” because of the way the story is told in dialect and accent. The story involves a cat, dynamite and miners who only half know what they are doing.

The Looney Tunes antics that ensue are funny only because nobody (or no animal) truly gets hurt. I know that the quotation I’ve used above may imply otherwise – but the cat isn’t really harmed. I mean, he’s able to walk away.

 

Mark Twain’s “The Story of the Old Ram”

I never so pined to see a man uncompromisingly drunk before.

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Mark Twain’s “The Story of the Old Ram” doesn’t have an old ram in it.

It does have cannibals that are converted after eating their missionaries, a dead man rising up at his funeral to tell his mortician that he doesn’t want this coffin but would rather have another one, and a man killed at a carpet factory after which his widow weaves his remains into the piece of carpet that killed him.

But no, it doesn’t have an old ram in it.

Wendell Berry: A Jonquil for Mary Penn (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 11)

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On a bright, still day in the late fall, after all the leaves were down, she had stood on the highest point and had seen the six smokes of the six houses rising straight up into the wide downfalling light. She knew which smoke came from which house. It was like watching the rising up of prayers or some less acknowledged communication between Earth and HeavenShe could not say to herself how it made her feel.

At first glance, Wendell Berry’s stories may come across as quaint and old-fashioned; however, he usually moves beyond the quaint to universal before you know it.

In “A Jonquil for Mary Penn”, a story set in 1940 Kentucky, young wife Mary wakes up sick. Her ambitious husband Elton gets up, eats breakfast and is out doing the farming before the sun is up.

During her day at home, we learn about the rift between Mary and her parents for marrying below her status. We learn a lot about her community and Elton. She loves him deeply but is upset because he appeared to not realize she’s sick.

It’s a great story that is mostly setting, tone and mood. At the end of the day, she wakes up to her friend Josie embroidering a jonquil. As Elton had sent Josie to watch Mary, she realizes he knew she was sick. That makes all the difference.

This story is included in my copy of That Distant Land: The Collected Stories. I read it when I selected the Eight of Clubs for my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. My Deal Me In List can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

I will keep one sadness. That all this time I cannot know what my mother is telling me. Nor can she know what I am wanting to tell her. Mae, you can have pleasure now because the soles of my feet are hard as cypress.

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There are great writers and great story-tellers and when one person can do both it’s a thing of beauty and Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy epitomizes that beauty. It’s as beautiful as the novel’s cover.

Of course, beauty doesn’t eliminate sadness and tragedy and there is plenty of that in this novel. Florens, a slave girl in 1690 Maryland is given away by her mother to pay her master’s debt. Florens, old enough to know what’s going on at the time, never forgets what her mother has done.

The plot in the present time simply consists of an older Florens traveling to see the free blacksmith with whom she is head over heels in love so that he can get the right kind of medicine for her current Mistress who appears to be on her deathbed.

But Morrison miraculously gives the reader so much depth and understanding by having the many characters involved all tell the story. While Florens gets more sections from her point of view than the others, many of the  characters who might be considered minor are brought to major light through the sections that are from their viewpoint. Not many writers could pull this off.

While reading the novel, the title hung over my head as a major question. And then, when I thought everyone had had their say, a surprising voice appears:

It was not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human. I stayed on my knees. In the dust where my heart will remain each night and every day until you understand what I know and long to tell you: to be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing.

Oh Florens. My love. Hear a tua mae.

 

 

Scott McClanahan: Mary, The Cleaning Lady (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 10)

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There were good things like ice cream cones, and trying to keep houses clean, and your mother bringing you to Mary’s house wrapped in a blanket, so you could watch cartoons and dream your cartoon dreams.

When I was a child, I occasionally went to visit an elderly relative in a nursing home. While my relative would be familiar to me, I have to admit that the other patients were pretty scary. This is part of the premise of Scott McClanahan’s “Mary, the Cleaning Lady”. A young Scott gets dropped off at Mary’s house by his mother when she goes to work. Mary goes to work, also, to clean houses and brings Scott along. McClanahan manages to put all the fears and pleasures of childhood into this small story.

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Of the stories I’ve read so far in the anthology Degrees of Elevation: Short Stories of Contemporary Appalachia edited by Charles Dodd White and Page Seay, I’d say this is my favorite. I haven’t read anything else by Scott McClanahan but based on what I’ve seen on Amazon.com, he is a native of West Virginia and his work appears to have been published by small independent publishing companies. I wouldn’t mind exploring more of his work.

I read this story when I selected the Five of Spades for my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. My Deal Me In List can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

For Week 11, I’m reading another story with a Mary in the title: Wendell Berry’s “A Jonquil for Mary Penn”.

What stories about childhood have you read? Which ones would you recommend?