A few posts ago, I indicated that Jack London’s “Moon-Face” was my favorite short story that I’ve read so far this year. While I still think it’s brilliant, I’ve read another one that may have topped it.
It’s another one of those stories that got mentioned in a book that I read a while ago. My former book club read Michael J. Fox’s book Always Looking Up: The Adventures of An Incurable Optimist a few years ago. Fox happens to mention that one of his daughters is named Esme after J. D. Salinger’s short story “For Esme – With Love and Squalor”. At that time, I had pulled out my copy of Nine Stories by J. D. Salinger that I’ve had since around 1982 and looked up the story…but never read it until now.
An American soldier, who’s also a writer, on duty in England in 1944, wanders into a church where a children’s choir is practicing. He notices that a girl of around thirteen has one of the better voices. After the practice has ended, he stops by a cafe where the girl from the choir along with her governess and younger brother also happen to visit. The girl, whose name is Esme, seems rather intelligent and forward. She strikes up a conversation with the soldier. Her younger brother, Charles, takes a liking to the soldier, too. The short conversation that takes place impressed me as the type of conversation one would have that, when it’s over, one thinks “I’ve just made a friend”… even if one never sees them again. Prior to leaving, Esme asks the soldier if they can write to each other.
War and a nervous breakdown happen and in the midst I admit I had to look up the word “squalor” – it meant what I thought it meant, filth and misory. Again, in the midst of all this, the innocence of the conversation in the cafe kept coming back to me, adding a beauty to the story that I was not in the least expecting.