Mark Twain’s “Some Learned Fables for Good Old Boys and Girls”

I don’t know whether the phrase “good old boys” had the same meaning in Mark Twain’s time as it does today. I’m guessing not because his short story “Some Learned Fables for Good Old Boys and Girls” doesn’t have much relationship to the ideas that the phrase might conjur up today.

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One could call this a reverse fable in the sense that the animals of the  woods discover items made by human beings, such as a train or a building, and determine, based on their knowledge, what these might be – unlike traditional fables where stories are told by men how animals came to be.

It’s a pleasant story and unsurprisingly a funny one. The animals all have minds that help them identify the items that they find – even if they are wrong – exemplified in one of Professor Snail’s conclusions:

“The fact that it is not diaphanous convinces me that it is a dense vapor formed by the calorification of ascending mositure dephlogisticated by refraction. A few endiometrical experiments would confirm this, but it is not necessary. The thing is obvious.”

A locomotive becomes the transit of Venus crossing the earth – even though the transit of Venus was suppose to cross the sun. The train tracks are lines of latitude.

Since Twain usually makes fun of something, I wonder what he may have been satirizing with this story. Maybe he’s just throwing the whole fable concept upside down and, if so, he does a nice job of it. If he’s making fun of human beings in the process, its not quite as obvious.

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Mark Twain’s “A True Story”

…she was sixty years old, but her eye was undimmed and her strength unabated. She was a cheerful, hearty soul, and it was no more trouble for her to laugh than it is for a bird to sing. She was under fire, now, as usual when the day was done. That is to say, she was being chaffed without mercy, and was enjoying it. She would let off peal after peal of laughter, and then sit with her face in her hands and shake with throes of enjoyment which she could no longer get breath enough to express. At such a moment as this a thought occurred to me, and I said:

“Aunt Rachel, how is it that you’ve lived sixty years and never had any trouble?”

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In Mark Twain’s “A True Story”, Aunt Rachel, a former slave, tells how she, her husband and seven children were seperately sold at auction. And she also tells of her eventual reunion with her youngest son.

The title Twain gives this story raises some questions. Would readers perhaps wonder if this is a true story so he gives it the title to let them know it is? Could the story be part of Twain’s imagination but hold some sort of truth regardless? Could the contrast between Aunt Rachel’s joyful demeanor at age sixty and the heartbreak she suffered as a slave bring to question the truth of the story?

Water Street by Crystal Wilkinson

Last year, I enjoyed Crystal Wilkinson’s short story “Humming Back Yesterday” so when I found her book Water Street on display at my local public library in the  “local” section, I decided to pick it up and give it a try. Not surprisingly, I’m glad I did.

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We are almost Southern but not northern at all. Stanford’s black children root here. Some of her white ones, too. This street is our homeland.

We have streetlights but we are not quite country. Not city at all.

These opening lines set the stage for a series of related vignettes that revolve around Water Street in Stanford, Kentucky. Though Stanford is a real place (I looked it up on a map), the stories and characters are fictional. Each story is about a different resident and may be set in various timeframes. The reader might hear a minor mention of a charater in someone else’s story and then get a larger story about that character later on. The interrelationship between the stories mirrors the relationship between the characters.

The story that Jeanette Stokes tells intrigued me because it almost stands alone unlike the other stories. She tells of her mother leaving her when she was a girl – not physically but mentally after Jeanette’s father dies. Her mother continues to talk to her father setting them apart from the other neighbors. She gets ridiculed at school for living in a haunted house.  Eventually, Jeanette deals with the death of her mother:

In the weeks that followed, I kept my eyes peeled for Mama’s second coming. I had hoped she would come back a sprightly vision, her and Daddy two-stepping around the old couch. But I don’t think we have choice in the spirits who haunt us. We have to settle for what we get. And I have.

In a slightly happier story, Pearline, the elderly mother-in-law of Lois Carter (who has her own story), tells about having to move in (for health reasons) with Lois and Pearline’s son, Roscoe. The ladies don’t really get along. They do try to put on their best faces for each other, though:

“Bye, Honey, You are so sweet.” Pearline could act too. She was Lena Horne made over.

Pearline watching TV with her friend Hazel over the phone makes for some good laughs, too. I enjoy the way Pearline isn’t giving up – especially with her morning walks.

Wilkinson beautifully manages to show the individuality that exists on Water Street as well as the community. She shows the uniqueness of Water Street compared to the rest of the world but she shows the sameness, too.

Another Wilkinson story is on my list for Deal Me In 2017 and I’m looking forward to when that one shows up in my deck.

 

 

Chris Offutt: Horseweed (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 17)

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Chris Offutt’s short story “Horseweed” brings to mind Bob Dylan’s song “The Times They Are A-Changin'”. William, a drywaller by trade in a small Kentucky town, helps a man bitten by a copperhead. The man happens to be in William’s secret hemp garden, his hope for a little extra cash.

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The fascinating aspect of this story is how Offutt takes a small moment and packs in gererations of tradition and couples it with changing attitudes. This change is slow in coming based on the fact that William initially discovers the man’s snake bite because he’s looking at him through the scope of a rifle.

The generational change gets summed up like this:

William moved through darkness, following the creek. At the fork, he climbed the hill to Crosscut Ridge. He felt momentarily glad that his grandfather and father were dead and unable to know he’d helped the man live. His father would have left the man snake-bit, and his grandfather would have shot him. If William’s own grandson understood his decision, he’d give the rifle to the boy.

I read “Horseweed” this week when I selected the Ace of Spades for Week 17 of my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. It’s included in my copy of Degrees of Elevation: Short Stories of Contemporary Appalachia edited by Charles Dodd White and Page Seay. My Deal Me In List can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Something Rich and Strange: Selected Stories by Ron Rash (Part 3)

…I’m beginning to believe that even in a fallen world things can sometimes look up.

– from “The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth”

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And now here are my thoughts on the final 11 stories from Ron Rash’s Something Rich and Strange: Selected Stories:

A Servant of History – A darkly funny take on the feuds that have occurred over the centuries in Appalachia – and Scotland.

Twenty-Six Days – A touching story about parents looking forward to their daughter’s return from Afghanistan.

Last Rite – Don’t expect this one to be a happy story and that brings up the question about which of these stories would one consider happy. Not many of them. The ones that are funny come the closest so far. This one’s not.

Blackberries in June – In this story, Rash succeeds in making me loathe one character. I get angry just like Matt after every comment his sister-in-law makes.

Chemistry – What a great story! I gave it a post of its own right here. And I take back my previous comment – this one comes the closest to being a happy story (so far) but its difficult to say it has a happy ending.

The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth – OK, this is the happiest story so far and its the funniest! If I had read just a little faster, this might have been my Easter story. Unfortunately, this is not far off the mark based on my church experience. But it’s still hilarious!

The Harvest – Short, poignant, sad. That hardness shows up again even among helpful neighbors. The neighbors understand this, though.

Badeye – Snakes show up again in this one as a result of the curiosity of an eight-year-old boy instead of religious purposes. The child as the narrator gives this story a certain charm as he tells of his mother’s great lengths to get him to see the errors of his ways.

Love and Pain in the New South – Very short and wonderful humor and it involves a monkey:

She had loved the monkey, and at first even loved me again. It was the Indian Summer of our marriage.

Shiloh – Already posted about this one here.

Outlaws – An author tells the story he wrote and then tells the real story and then meets one of the characters involved 40 years later. Not really a happy story.

Favorites from this group? Chemistry and The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth. I can’t pick one over the other. It depends on my mood.

There are some excellent stories in this group and I have to say it’s been a while since I’ve read so many enjoyable stories in one collection. I am a little sad that I’m finished. I’m pretty sure this collection will rank up there as a favorite this year.

Here are the posts for the rest of the stories:

Part 1

Part 2

 

 

Barbara Kingsolver: Stone Dreams (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 16)

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“When I went to college, which was supposed to make you feel, you know, uplifted, I felt like my loafers were screwed to the floor. The other students would ask these questions that made the professors pause and reflect, and they’d see symbolism without having it pointed out, but I just couldn’t conceive of anything beyond what I saw on the page. I kept thinking there was some explanatory brochure I’d forgotten to pick up during registration. Or maybe it was because they all lived in dorms and I lived at home. Those other girls probably sat around in the halls with their hair in rollers and talked about symbolism.”

In Barbara Kingsolver’s “Stone Dreams”, Diana goes on a trip to the Petrified Forest with her boyfriend, Peter, while her husband, Nathan, is at an eye doctor conference in Hawaii and her daughter, Julie, is visiting her grandmother in Kentucky.

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Diana tells the story and gives all kinds of great insights (see the quotation above) about her life, her daughter, and the two men with whom she is currently involved. Most of these insights are told to Peter about Nathan; however, she will stop and point out to the reader what she thinks of Peter.

Throughout Diana’s story, it’s not difficult to feel that she might be blaming the men in her life, specifically her husband, for her life’s lack of excitement or for her inability to mobilize any ambition – but she never quite gets there. That’s probably because I’m not convinced that the men are doing the stifling. Yes, Nathan’s interest in rocks (hence, the title) might take center stage in their marriage but I don’t think he is forcing her to have the same interests. She doesn’t have anything else so she gives in to the rocks.

I’m fascinated with Kingsolver’s ability to write conversations that are “conversational” but also give depth to the characters in the story. I feel like I’m hearing something casual until I finish the story and realize it was so much more.

“Stone Dreams” is included in Kingsolver’s collection Homeland and Other Stories which I borrorwed from my public library. I read it when I selected the Three of Clubs for Week 16 of 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.

 

 

Ron Rash: Chemistry (A Short Story Easter Extra)

As I’m reading through Ron Rash’s short story collection Something Rich and Strange, a collection of short stories set in Appalachia over various time periods, I’ve been wondering (stereotypically, I know) whether snake handlers would show up. They do in his story “Chemistry”.  However, I didn’t expect them to be a part of such a poignant story or one that coincidentally would make me think about Easter.

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Teenager Joel begins the story as his father, a high school chemistry teacher, leaves the hospital after a mental breakdown. Recovering, the father goes back to work, takes up scuba diving and leaves his Presbyterian church to return to the Pentacostal church of his childhood.

While not portraying mental illness lightly, Rash paints the father as someone who now has a new lease on life, almost as someone who has been reborn. The contrast between old and new life accompanies a deeper look at the roles of knowledge and faith and asks the question whether faith is reasonable or unreasonable. He tries to explain this to his son:

“Your mother believes the holy rollers got me too young, that they raised me to see the world only the way they see it. But she’s wrong about that. There was a time I could understand everything from a single atom to the whole universe with a blackboard and piece of chalk, and it was as beautiful as any hymn the way it all came together.”

He includes a story of a newly found friend:

“There was nothing in this world to sustain him, so he had to look somewhere else. I’ve had to do the same.”

The father seems to have come to terms with what he believes and has found a peace for himself. Joel still isn’t sure but his father has made an impact on him or else, at least in my mind, he wouldn’t be telling the story. And I’m glad I’ve read Ron Rash’s story as I contemplate Easter today.