Pat Carr: Diary of a Union Soldier (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 43)

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She stood up again, carefully shut the trunk. She gazed at the profile of the man on the bed, and took a jagged breath that in the cold air of the room sounded like a branch against glass. Then she opened the door to the gray yellow morning and went outside.

Pat Carr uses an interesting idea in her short story “Diary of a Union Soldier”. Set during the American Civil War, a woman compares her marriage to a Confederate soldier who is away from their Kentucky home fighting to what she imagines a marriage would be like to the unconscious wounded Union soldier lying in her bed. Most of her imaginary marriage comes from reading the diary that the woman found with the Union soldier’s things. And it comes as no surprise that the marriage she can’t have appears better than the one she has.

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The excerpts from the diary that Carr includes in the story prove the Union soldier is articulate – perhaps more so than the woman’s husband. The Union soldier also seems observant of his surroundings. Other than that; however, the diary doesn’t give much detail about the soldier’s background or personality. This comes from the woman’s imagination. She takes considerable note of the handsomeness of the soldier. Also, something that might be different from her husband.

While maybe not one of my favorite stories, it’s one worth reading and one I would recommend.

I read “Diary of a Union Soldier” when I selected the Four of Diamonds for Week 43 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. It’s included in my copy of Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories edited by Morris Allen Grubbs. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

G. K. Chesterton: The Fairy-Tale of Father Brown (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 42)

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Perhaps his reason had been suddenly unseated by the unnatural captivity he carried with him, but in that wood he felt something unfathomably German – the fairy tale.

While I’ve found all of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories enjoyable (all of them that I’ve read anyway),  “The Fairy-Tale of Father Brown” could rank up there as my favorite. I like the way Chesterton doesn’t always use the traditional mystery/detective story format – the one with all the “usual suspects”.

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In the case of this story, Father Brown and his frequent police detective partner, Flambeau, find themselves in a German pub having a beer commenting on the fairy-tale aspects of the small town they are visiting. Flambeau tells Father Brown about the unsolved murder of Prince Otto.

Of course Father Brown listens, asks a few questions, then solves the twenty year-old mystery – all over a beer. When Father Brown tells his friend how the murder happened, he tells it in the form of a fairy-tale – and a rather good fairy-tale at that.

This story is included in G. K. Chesterton’s The Complete Stories of Father Brown. I read it when I selected the Seven of Hearts for Week 42 of my Deal Me In short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

The Book of Lights

When I finished reading all of Chaim Potok’s novels for the first time in the early 2000’s, I considered his novel The Book of Lights my least favorite. In re-reading it, I think I’ve gained a better appreciation for it.

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Potok’s novels usually have an element that is uplifting as his protagonists struggle to figure out where they fit in to their world – leaving behind some aspect of their traditional faith or upbringing. In The Book of Lights, however, things are more bleak even if it does end on an affirming note.

As a rabbinical student in the 1950’s, Gerson Loran studies Kabbalah, mystical Jewish texts from medieval times – a topic not all of his professors feel is worthy of study. As he moves on from seminary to become a chaplain in Korea, he frequently sees visions and hears a voice from the “darkness” pointing out the sad state of affairs in which his century finds itself. Adding to his confusion, his experience in the Eastern world leads him to appreciate the beauty of God in what his tradition considers a pagan land:

Do you flee from the giants of your century, the great ones whose lights blind the eye and whose faults numb the heart? They fill you with hurt, with anger, with awe, do they not, these giants? They make ashes of great ideas, do they not? Do you flee to pagan worlds remote from the civilization of your teachers – to test their teachings? To escape their visions, their echoes, and the shadows that lie between what they are and what they teach? How far will you flee? Or are you done? Did your journey end in the fused light and darkness of the Macao brothel? I ask cruel questions of truth, Gershon. Truth. I come from the other side.

Gershon’s seminary roommate, Arthur Leiden, also struggles with the events of his century in that Arthur’s father helped develop the atomic bomb. And in an interesting twist, Arthur’s mother also had a hand in the United States’ decision to drop the bomb on Japan. Arthur’s struggles seem more self-destructive than Gershon’s questioning but both of their journey’s take them to Hiroshima where Arthur movingly says the Kaddish  at the Peace memorial – but the journey still doesn’t end.

While the voice out of the darkness could easily be only a literary device, Potok uses it to provide depth to the questions Gershon and Arthur ask. These questions are not just their own questions but questions for an entire generation. Questions that don’t come with any answers. Questions that produce the prevailing sadness of the entire novel.

 

Ray Bradbury: En La Noche (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 41)

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In the many, many wonderful stories written by Ray Bradbury, it’s okay in my opinion if there is one “klunker” and “En La Noche” might be that one.

A woman misses her husband (who joined the Army) so much that her crying at night keeps her entire apartment building awake. The other tenants get so frustrated that they nominate one of the men (they are all married) to go to the woman and – well – get her to stop crying. I’ll let you use your imagination as to how he might do that.

I guess the humor in the story comes from the wife of the nominee who doesn’t really care what her husband does – as long as she and their five children get some sleep.

It’s kind of funny and kind of cute but just not my favorite Bradbury story.

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I usually have trouble figuring out which paragraph or sentence to quote from a Bradbury story because every one of them is so great. That’s not the case, though, with this story. I’ll throw this one out there:

Silence lived in every room like a light turned off. Silence flowed like a cool wine in the tunnel halls. Silence came through the open casements like a cool breath from the cellar. They all stood breathing the coolness of it.

“En La Noche” is included in Bradbury’s collection A Sound of Thunder and Other Stories. I read it when I selected the Eight of Hearts for Week 41 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

James Alan McPherson: Gold Coast (Deal Me In 2018 – Week 40)

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That spring, when I had a great deal of potential and no money at all, I took a job as a janitor.

This first line of James Alan McPherson’s “Gold Coast” contains a lot of promise or may be potential to use his own word – and it lives up to that promise.

Robert, the narrator, takes a job as a janitor in an apartment building around Harvard Square. A few hints let the reader know that he is a writer. He also tells his story and the stories around him with a sharp wit and an articulate depth.

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Robert looks down on the previous janitor in the building possibly for not showing the kind of potential he, himself, has. But after a while, the older man reveals that there is more to him than one might immediately guess. While this breaking down of stereotypes may be one of the themes of “Gold Coast”, I think the loss of potential might be another one. Though we don’t know the outcome of Robert’s life, his optimism seems to say that he lives up to his potential – unlike his predecessor. And while this nice little line from towards the end of the story speaks to a specific time in the story, I think we could see the reference to summer and winter as indications of potential obtained or lost:

 Everyone was restless for change, for August is the month when undone things must be finished or regretted all through the winter

“Gold Coast” is included in The Best Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike. I read it when I selected the Five of Clubs for Week 40 of my Deal Me In 2018 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

I Am the Clay

In Chaim Potok’s novel I Am the Clay, an old Korean woman remembers the words of a hymn she heard from her mother who heard them from a white missionary: have thine own way Lord, Have thine own way, thou art the potter, I am the clay.

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The woman doesn’t understand the words or their meaning but sings them anyway. While the question is never asked explicitly in the novel, as the reader, I couldn’t help wondering what the woman would think if she did understand them. The woman and her husband, referred to as “the old man”, flee from their home and village as the Chinese and North Koreans attack. They flee to a refugee camp amidst all the horror of war. How could one truly believe that a loving God could have his way and this is what the world looks like?

At the same time, the old couple finds a boy badly wounded ready to die. The woman insists on helping the boy and eventually nurses him back to health much to the dismay of her husband who sees the boy as a burden. As the boy regains his strength, though, he becomes a blessing to the old couple in his ability to find food and barter for needed supplies. While the old woman saves the boy’s life, he eventually saves her life and her husband’s. Is there something out there that can mold something beautiful – like a family – out of something horrifying? Is there something out there that can change the old man’s mind:

…and one morning, as he watched the boy climb the hill to the grave wearing the hat of mourning, he felt deep within himself a slow and tortuous turning and then an opening of doors to deeper and deeper recesses inside himself, caves leading to caves, and his heart raced and he wondered if this was what was meant by the word love…

This is the only novel of Potok’s that doesn’t center around his own Jewish faith. He does include a Jewish chaplain as a minor character, just as Potok himself was a chaplain in Korea.