Langston Hughes: Red-Headed Baby


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I’ve always heard one of the rules of good story-writing is “show, don’t tell”.  Langston Hughes skillfully demonstrates this concept in his short story “Red-Headed Baby”.  If I would tell this story, it would simply be a caucasian sailor stops off the coast of Florida to visit a woman of mixed race with whom he had an encounter three years ago.  The result of that encounter – whether the sailor wants to admit it or not – is the title character.  I don’t feel I’m giving anything away by telling the story because the way Hughes shows the plot is what makes the story worth reading – and what makes it masterful.

Hughes writes the story using conversations with the characters involved – some of them one-sided – juxtaposed with poetic paragraphs that share the mood of a character or the geography of the setting.  From the information in the foreword to this story, Hughes is known more for his poetry than his prose, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that these passages exist and that they work so well:

Rickety run-down huts, under palm trees.  Flowers and vines all over.  Always growing, always climbing.  Never finished.  Never will be finished climbing, growing.  Hell of a lot of stars these Florida nights.

Betsy’s red-headed child stands in the door looking like one of those goggly-eyed dolls you hit with a ball at the County Fair.  The child’s face got no change in it.  Never changes.  Looks like never will change.  Just staring – blue-eyed.

The majority of the story is from the point of view of the sailor and it’s no surprise that he’s not the most likeable person.  The racism and bigotry – and hatred – flow with considerable depth with so few words and Hughes doesn’t have to tell this to  the reader.  He shows it loud and clear.


I read this story by drawing the Six of Clubs in my Deal Me In 2015 short story project.  My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here.  Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis. This story is included in my copy of The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates.

Lorrie Moore: You’re Ugly, Too


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I drew the Nine of Diamonds for Week 10 of Deal Me In 2015 and that brought me to new-to-me author Lorrie Moore’s 1989 short story “You’re Ugly, Too.”  My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here.  Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

The story centers around Zoe, an American History professor who reminds me of Bridget Jones.  It moves geographically from Zoe’s current place of residence, a small Illinois town across the state line from Terre Haute, Indiana, to her childhood home in Maryland via flashbacks to her sister’s Manhattan apartment.  In every place, she proves to be the proverbial fish out of water. In an attempt to connect with her students, she starts the first day of each class singing “Getting To Know You”.

Most of the story consists of Zoe’s stream of consciousness regarding her family, her students, and, of course, men:

Often, when she spoke to men at parties, she rushed things in her mind.  As the man politely blathered on, she would fall in love, marry, then find herself in a bitter custody battle with him for the kids and hoping for a reconciliation, so that despite all his betrayals she might no longer despise him, and, in the few minutes remaining, learn, perhaps, what his last name was and what he did for a living, though probably there was already too much history between them.

Even at Zoe’s rambling best, Moore’s writing is crisp and exact.  No thought is wasted and every idea not only makes Zoe quirky and endearing but makes her admirable, also.

Given the title of the story, I was preparing myself for some sort of hatefulness or cruelty.  I was pleasantly surprised to realize that the title is a punchline from one of Zoe’s favorite jokes involving a doctor and a second opinion.  Her love of jokes makes her that much more endearing – and admirable.  This is one of those stories that could be perfectly described as “a gem”.


This story is included in my Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike.