Chris Holbrook: Upheaval (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 22)

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The truck’s engine throbs through his chest, and for a moment it is as if his heartbeat rises and falls with the idle speed. He tastes diesel at the back of his throat, feels the sting of it high in his nostrils. His head swims like he is drunk. He fumbles for the seat belt catch, and then realizes if it was going to go it would have gone already. He sucks deep breaths. It was not the ground giving way, he’d seen. It was heat shimmers. Or it was the shadow of a cloud passing. Or it was light on his mirror.

I admit that I initially didn’t find interesting the details of strip-mining in Chris Holbrook’s short story “Upheaval”, but as the story progressed, I realized the brilliance of using these details to explain potential dangers of the job and ultimately, the stress of Haskell, the third person narrator of the story.

Not only does the stress affect Haskell at his job but it affects his home and family, too. Holbrook makes it easy to feel the tension in the home as Haskell sees his wife come home from her grocery store job with her own stress but continue to take care of their young son and walk on eggshells to make sure their son doesn’t bother his father.

While not specifically mentioned, its my guess that Haskell wants to be a better father and husband but continues to allow his job’s stress to keep him in a state of continual desperation – a desperation that’s engrained in the details of the job.

I read “Upheaval” when I selected the Jack of Clubs for Week 22 of my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. It’s included in my copy of Degrees of Elevation: Short Stories from 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.

Mark Twain’s “What Stumped the Bluejays”

There’s more to a bluejay than any other creature. He has got more moods, and more different kinds of feelings than other creatures; and, mind you, whatever a bluejay feels, he can put into language. And no mere commonplace language, either, but rattling, out-and-out book talk – and bristling with metaphor, too – just bristling!

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Jim Baker can understand what animals say and relays his story to Mark Twain about an incident involving bluejays, acorns and a house.

In some ways, this story reminds me of a fable; however, the plot serves only to be humorous, delightful and absurd. The absurdity of the situation makes it most enjoyable.

Mark Twain’s “Mrs. McWilliams and the Lightning”

Well, sir – continued Mr. McWilliams, for this was not the beginning of his talk – the fear of lightning is one of the most distressing infirmities a human being can be afflicted with.

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After reading Mark Twain’s story “Mrs. McWilliams and the Lightning”, I wondered if it would be considered a farce. Of course, I wasn’t sure of the exact definition of a farce so I looked it up on dictionary.com:

a light, humorous play in which the plot depends upon a skillfully exploited situation rather than upon the development of character.

Mr. and Mrs. McWilliams are recurring characters in Twain’s stories where Mr. McWilliams, though irritated, gives in to the irrational fears of his wife. In the case of this story, Mrs. McWilliams has herself hidden in a closet during a lightning storm. Because the closet is only big enough for her, she yells out directions to her husband about how best to protect himself from the lightning – given that he can’t fit in the closet with her.

Ultimately, the situation builds and builds with one humorous act after another. It reminded me of an episode of I Love Lucy. I think most sitcoms could be considered farces – as well as this story.

Here’s my post about another McWilliams story, “Experience of the McWilliamses with Membranous Croup”. 

Mark Twain’s “The Man Who Put Up at Gadsby’s”

In Mark Twain’s “The Man Who Put Up at Gadsby’s”, the narrator and his friend Riley (an “odd” friend as the narrator puts it), both journalists, walk down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D. C.  in the midst of a winter storm when they are met by Mr. Lykins, a teacher from San Francisco who aspires to a post-office position in his California home.

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Perhaps because Riley is amused at Mr. Lykins for thinking these journalists will have some sort of pull to get him the position he’s looking for, Riley proceeds to tell Mr. Lykins a story:

He backed Mr. Lykins against an iron fence, buttonholed him, fastened him with his eye, like the Ancient Mariner, and proceeded to unfold his narrative as placidly and peacefully as if we were all stretched comfortably in a blossomy summer meadow instead of being persecuted by a wintry midnight tempest…

The story goes on longer than Mr. Lykin probably expects and has nothing to do with Mr. Lykin’s ambitions. In spite of Riley’s “oddness”, Twain throws his sympathies to him for being able to keep Mr. Lykin’s attention for so long with no specific point.

Bobbie Ann Mason: Shiloh (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 21)

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History was always just names and dates to him…the real inner workings of a marriage, like most of history, have escaped him.

Bobbie Ann Mason’s short story “Shiloh” takes the disintegrating marriage of Leroy and Norma Jean Moffit to the location of the Civil War battle at Shiloh on the Tennessee River. Mason contrasts history and tradition with the here and now, the present, and all the changes that go along with this contrast.

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With third-person narration, the reader gets Leroy’s point of view but an unusual dynamic exists between the three characters of the story, Leroy and Norma Jean and Norma Jean’s mother, Mabel. Leroy’s mother-in-law isn’t suppose to like Leroy because he got Norma Jean pregnant out-of-wedlock though they lost the baby. However, Norma Jean’s insistence on going to school and having a career unnerves Mabel to the point where Mabel, without really knowing it, takes Leroy’s side in her daughter’s marital matters. Leroy relies mostly on tradition to try to keep his marriage together.

It’s Mabel’s idea for the couple to visit the Shiloh battle site. Mabel and her husband went there on their honeymoon and somehow she thinks all this “history” will spark something in Norma Jean and she can have a happy marriage – or at least a marriage with which Mabel can be comfortable.

Even from the beginning of the story, one can guess how successful Mabel is going to be.

“Shiloh” is included in the collection Shiloh and Other Stories by Bobbie Ann Mason that I borrowed from my public library. I read it when I selected the Four of Clubs for Week 21 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.

 

Mark Twain’s “Edward Mills and George Benton: A Tale”

“Be pure, honest, sober, industrious, and considerate of others, and success in life is assured.”

Mark Twain’s “Edward Mills and George Benton: A Tale” ploughs through terrain we’ve experienced before specifically in “The Story of the Bad Little Boy” and “The Story of the Good Little Boy”.

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This story includes the same theme of turning the results of moral choices on its head much the same way the above stories do; however, this one contrasts two orphaned cousins adopted by the same parents. One falls under the good little boy category and one under the bad little boy.

Given the contrast between the two boys, I would say “Edward Mills and George Benton: A Tale” is the better of the three stories. Is it funnier? Perhaps. But it’s not difficult to guess from early on that the advice given by the parents to the boys that I quoted above doesn’t turn out quite the way the parents think it will.

Mark Twain’s “The Loves of Alonzo Fitz Clarence and Rosannah Ethelton”

“How wonderful it is! Two little hours ago I was a free man, and now my heart’s in San Francisco!”

In “The Loves of Alonzo Fitz Clarence and Rosannah Ethelton”, Mark Twain gives us another hilarious situation involving technology. This time it’s that new fangled thing called a telephone.

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With Alonzo in Maine on a boring snowy day, he uses the new invention to call his Aunt Susan in San Francisco. While talking, Alonzo overhears an almost lovely singing voice (a few notes are flat) and inquires as to who it might be. This is the start of a beautiful relationship between Alonzo and Ronsannah Ethelton – even though they can’t see each other.

The biggest laughs come when Twain gives lengthy descriptions of what each party is wearing even though we know they can’t see each other. In another instance someone picks up the phone and pretends to be someone else giving the relationship its first little bump in the road.

I’ll leave the ultimate resolution of the relationship to anyone who might want to read this story themselves.