Mary E. Wilkins Freeman: Old Woman Magoun

DEAL ME IN- WEEK 18

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The weakness of the masculine element in Barry’s Ford was laid low before such strenuous feminine assertion.

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s short story “Old Woman Magoun” (published in 1891) works on several levels that blend together in a manner that continues to make me think about it.  I read it when I selected the Six of Spades for Week 18 of my Deal Me In 2015 short story project.

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

(Picture obtained from goodreads.com)

Perhaps the title itself represents the levels the story contains.  The first word “Old” could signify the story’s theme of lost childhood or lost innocence.  Old Woman Magoun lives in Barry’s Ford somewhere in New England with her granddaughter, Lily.  Lily’s mother (Old Woman Magoun’s daughter) died during childbirth and Lily’s father is a prominent figure in Barry’s Ford and doesn’t want anything to do with Lily.  Lily and her grandmother live a decent life together until Lily’s father realizes that Lily is fourteen.  Much is made of the fact that Lily continues to play with a doll.

The second word “Woman” might point to the gender conflict in the story.  Freeman does not portray men positively here. Lily’s father wants to marry her off to a friend as payment for a poker debt. Old Woman Magoun has no use for men or the work they do.  Men build a much needed bridge over Barry’s Ford’s river that doesn’t live up to Old Woman Magoun’s expectations.  She could have done it better.

The reader gets a clue to the story’s resolution from a small detail mentioned as Old Woman Magoun and Lily walk across the bridge. The story’s final image is heart-breaking as Old Woman Magoun mourns the loss of innocence and the loss of the life she had before men ruined it.

This story is included in my anthology The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates.  My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here. Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

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Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson

What do you do when one of your literary heroes was not always the most decent of human beings?  For me, I’ve managed to hold on to what perhaps amounts to a paradox – an artist is both eternally attached to their work as they are eternally separated from it.  A work of art both stands with its artist and on its own.  I don’t find it difficult to appreciate and value Ernest Hemingway’s work and his ability as a writer while acknowledging what seems to be his numerous character flaws.

Paul Hendrickson’s biography Hemingway’s Boat covers Hemingway’s life starting in 1934 when he purchased his much loved yacht Pilar immediately after returning from a hunting trip in Africa with his second wife Pauline.  Hendrickson weaves hunting, fishing and writing along with Hemingway’s realtionships (family, friends, enemies and otherwise) into a real and fascinating story.  The book contains plenty of un-sugarcoated evidence proving the stereotype of Hemingway’s less than congenial personality; however, Hendrickson goes to great and well-documented lengths to show a Hemingway that could go against stereotype, also.

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The book only briefly mentions Hemingway’s life prior to 1934 so The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell To Arms as well as his first wife, Hadley, don’t take center stage.  I found it interesting that his third wife, Martha Gelhorn, attains only minimal attention, too.  On the flip side, Hemingway’s two most enduring novels from this time period, For Whom The Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea, don’t get much focus, either.  I found it intriguing that Hendrickson spends much of the book pointing out the events of Hemingway’s life that influenced his lesser known and lesser acclaimed novels Green Hills of Africa, Across the River and Into the Trees, and the posthumously published novels Islands in the Stream and Garden of Eden.  

I also did not realize how many memoirs have been published by members of the Hemingway family.  Hendrickson often sites the memoir of Hemingway’s son Gregory, Papa, as well as How It Was by Hemingway’s fourth wife, Mary.  Two of Gregory’s children wrote little known but critically acclaimed memoirs – John Hemingway wrote Strange Tribe and Lorian Hemingway wrote Walk on Water. 

Hendrickson writes with both sympathy and honesty about his literary idol and I would recommend this book to anyone on whom Ernest Hemingway’s writing has had an effect.

Annie Proulx: The Half-Skinned Steer

DEAL ME IN – WEEK 17

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It’s Week 17 of Deal Me In 2015 and I drew the Six of Diamonds.  This brought me to Annie Proulx’s short story “The Half-Skinned Steer”.  This is the second work of Proulx’s that I’ve read.  Prior to blogging, I had read her short story “Brokeback Mountain”.  My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here. Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.  Jay also posted about this story last year.

Proulx took me by surprise with her ability to effectively incorporate a cross-country road trip within a short story.  Mero leaves his home of sixty years in Massachusetts to head back to his childhood home of Wyoming where his brother Rollo has died.  Proulx perfectly blends the physical and natural world with Mero’s aging confused mind.

In theme, this story reminds me of Jack London’s “To Build A Fire” or, for that matter, any of London’s man vs. nature stories. In “The Half-Skinned Steer”, Proulx doesn’t explain the exact outcome of this classic conflict; however, the reader has a good idea who wins.

The story contains one of the best opening paragraphs I’ve read in a while:

In the long unfurling of his life, from tight-wound kid hustler in a wool suit riding the train out of Cheyenne to geriatric limper in this spooled-out year, Mero had kicked down thoughts of the place where he began, a so-called ranch on strange ground at the south hinge of the Big Horns.  He’d got himself out of there in 1936, had gone to a war and come back, married and married again (and again), made money in boilers and air-duct cleaning and smart investments, retired, got into local politics and out again without scandal, never circled back to see the old man and Rollo, bankrupt and ruined, because he knew they were.

Mero’s remembered story of the red-eyed ghostly omen of the half-skinned steer gives the reader a clue as to why he left Wyoming in the first place. The bad luck that had been there sixty years prior (and that Mero apparently left behind) seems to have not gone anywhere.

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This story is included in my anthology Best American Short Stories of the Century and I can see why.  I think I would include it with a few other stories vying for my favorite of the year.  I highly recommend it.  It’s also included in Proulx’s collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories.

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Bradbury of the Month: April – The Wilderness

I am going down the table of contents in my Ray Bradbury anthology to get my stories for each month and for April, the next story is coincidentally “The April Witch”; however, I posted about this story back in 2012 so I went to the next story “The Wilderness”.

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A lesser writer would tempt me to say that this story is the same-old same-old.  Janice and Leonora pack up their things the night before leaving Earth to live with their husbands on Mars. It’s not a surprising storyline from Ray Bradbury. His ability, though, to paint this passing from one world to another as comparable to death gives an added touch of fear and wonder to the ladies’ pending trip.  A fear and wonder that also describes outer space, itself:

Now, with the closet door wide, with darkness like a velvet shroud hung before her to be stroked by a trembling hand, with the darkness like a black panther breathing there, looking at her with unlit eyes, the two memories rushed out. Space and a falling. Space and being locked away, screaming.  She and Leonora working steadily, packing, being careful not to glance out the window at the frightening Milky Way and the vast emptiness.  Only to have the long-familiar closet, with its private night, remind them at last of their destiny.

If I had to pick the better story, it would be the fantasy-laden “The April Witch”, but if one has the chance to read “The Wilderness”, don’t pass it up.

Jhumpa Lahiri: Hell-Heaven

DEAL ME IN – WEEK 16

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Last week, I read a Herman Melville story that alluded to heaven and hell in the title.  Interestingly enough, for  Week 16, I drew the Five of Diamonds and read Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story titled “Hell-Heaven”.

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This story contains a typical clash of cultures and generations.  It’s told from the point of view of Usha, the daughter of Bengali parents who moved to the United States.  The parents are the result of an arranged marriage and they struggle in the 1970’s to maintain their Indian culture with Usha.  The parents befriend a Bengali stranger new to the United States and he becomes like an uncle to their daughter.

The unique aspect of the story is that while the narrator is the young girl growing up between cultures, the focus is on Usha’s mother.  She comes to blows over Usha’s desire to be Americanized; however, this reader couldn’t help but wonder whether the mother’s anger results from her respect for the Indian life she has lived or from jealousy that her daughter gets to live something different than she did – or perhaps a little of both.

Usha’s adopted uncle’s marriage to an American woman intensifies her mother’s confusion and an aside comment at a dinner party gives the story its title:

‘He used to be so different.  I don’t understand how a person can change so suddenly.  It’s just hell-heaven, the difference,’ she would say, always using the English words for her self-concocted, backward metaphor.

This is the first story I have read by Lahiri and it is included in her collection Unaccustomed Earth.  It is also included in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here. Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Herman Melville: A Paradise of Bachelors and A Tartarus of Maids

DEAL ME IN – WEEK 15

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Week 15 of my Deal Me In 2015 project started with me having to look up a word in the title of a story, Herman Melville’s “A Paradise of Bachelors and A Tartarus of Maids” which I chose by drawing the Queen of Spades.  I discovered “Tartarus”, in essence, means hell – it was a lower region of Hades in Greek mythology.  And, therefore, “Paradise” can be assumed to mean heaven.  Melville uses both of these words figuratively in a story that Joyce Carol Oates (in an introduction to The Oxford Book of American Short Stories of whom Oates is editor) suggests could make him the first American feminist.  My Deal Me In 2015 list can be seen here. Deal Me In 2015 is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Herman Melville

I can’t say that this story has a plot, but it has words – and Melville’s poetic and magical words are enough.  As the title suggests, it’s a contrast of two situations.  In the first section, the unnamed narrator visits London, England for business purposes.  He has a grand time among lawyers and businessmen – all of whom are bachelors:

In mild meditation pace the cloisters; take your pleasure, sip your leisure, in the garden waterward; go linger in the ancient library; go worship in the sculptured chapel; but little have you seen, just nothing do you know, not the sweet kernel have you tasted, till you dine among the banded Bachelors, and see their convivial eyes and glasses sparkle.  Not dine in bustling commons, during term-time, in the hall; but tranquilly, by private hint, at a private table; some fine Templar’s hospitably invited guest.

The second section brings the narrator back to the United States, somewhere in New England.  He visits a paper factory to buy envelopes for his seed company.  Here, he encounters a group of women working in drudgery with no rest. Melville throws his sympathies to the ladies even if he doesn’t have a solution:

To and fro, across the sharp edge, the girls forever dragging long strips of rags, washed white, picked from baskets at one side; thus ripping asunder every seam, and converting the tatters almost into lint.  The air swam with the fine, poisonous particles, which from all sides darted, subtilely, as motes in sunbeams, into the lungs.

An obvious contrast of genders exists in this story so it begs Joyce Carol Oates’ question in her introduction “Herman Melville, our first native feminist? – can it be so?” (p.1, Oxford).  Written in the mid-nineteenth century, it’s difficult to see Melville as a feminist by today’s standards; however, it’s easy to see the beginning recognition of inequality.

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The Death of Santini by Pat Conroy

In tenth grade when I discovered Ernest Hemingway’s stripped down writing style, I stumbled upon contemporary author Pat Conroy.  I actually enjoyed the film version of The Great Santini before I realized who wrote the novel on which it was based.  In his novels, Conroy struggles to come to terms with his real-life Marine fighter-pilot father and the South being Southern-born.  I may have connected with this aspect of his novels as, in tenth grade, I lived in Conroy’s native South Carolina (but I was Northern-born). 17857644 Conroy’s current memoir, The Death of Santini, takes his readers (and fans) through the writing of The Great Santini, the making of the film version and his adult life with his father (on whom Bull Meecham of The Great Santini is based).  He includes a portrait of his six siblings, his mother and the extended family of both his parents.  I found Conroy’s willingness to maintain a relationship with his father admirable based on the less than wonderful childhood Conroy uses as the background for most of his novels.  At the same time, I have to give his family a little credit for still talking to Conroy (well, at least one of his family members doesn’t).  I’m not sure I would take well to having my private life immortalized in my brother’s or son’s novels.

It’s not difficult to realize that Conroy’s writing provides a contrasting style to Hemingway’s; however, in tenth grade, I found them to be complimentary to each other.  While the New York Times has not always been kind to Conroy’s work, I like his refusal to apologize for the way he writes:

There are other writers who try for subtle and minimalist effects, but I don’t travel with that tribe.  I like to make people look up and see me walking the high wire without a net.  That’s what I was born to do, and I almost ran to my writing desk every day, anxious and willing to have at it.

I think his efforts to walk a tight rope with his writing have paid off whether he’s writing novels or memoirs. For anyone who is a fan of his work, this book will be enjoyable.  For anyone who has not read anything by Pat Conroy, I would not start with this book – start with The Great Santini.