Wendell Berry: The Girl in the Window

Relieved, she now looked only at the line of riders as one by one they straggled by. Their horses were fairly fit and of fairly good stock. The men in general rode them well enough, with an evident sense of their power, even maybe of pomp, and yet still she felt their strangeness, the strangeness of their ability now, in their bunch, to do as they pleased. They were like biting dogs. Emboldened by the fear they had caused, they longed for pursuit, but they had found as yet nobody to pursue.

It looks like 2019 is turning into “A Year With Wendell Berry”. I hadn’t planned this but I happened upon a podcast that is discussing Wendell Berry’s fiction (short stories and novels) in chronological order of when they are set – which is significantly different from chronological order of when they were written. My guess is that they won’t get through all of them in 2019 but for now I’m catching up with them and then I plan to follow along with them. Check it out yourself, if you would like, at The Rabbit Room podcasts.

place time

Of all Berry’s stories about Port William, Kentucky, “The Girl in the Window” reaches back the farthest to 1864. Sitting close to the Ohio River but on the Kentucky side, Port William is in an odd position during the American Civil War. I find it fascinating the way 16 year-old Rebecca Dawe sees soldiers coming through town sometimes in “bunches” of gray and sometimes in “bunches” of blue. Port William is not immune to the strife, divisiveness and violence found in many parts of the country during this time. Rebecca goes over in her mind some of the events occurring during these years including the death of her brother Galen. Ultimately, both sides of the war feed off of the Port William residents to the point that they see both sides as equally dangerous.

The focal point comes at the end of the story when Rebecca looks out of a window at a line of soldiers. When one of them sees her, she refuses to stop looking at him. Instead of recoiling in fear, she holds her ground with courage as the soldier makes an offensive comment to her.

It seems a small occurrence compared to other happenings in Port William during the war but Berry sets the event on the same level as the more typical battles and conflicts. He puts a hidden strength in Rebecca’s refusal to turn away.

And to put this in perspective, Rebecca Dawe is the great grandmother of Andy Catlett, who most Berry fans and experts consider to be a fictional version of Berry, himself. Andy becomes the memory keeper of Port William, a position he inherits from his grandparents Mat and Margaret Feltner – Margaret being the daughter of Rebecca Dawe.

The story gives an interesting aside as to what Rebecca’s future holds:

She would not be wedded, she could hardly bear to be looked at, by the young men of her own place, every one of whom seemed to her to bear the taint of what she called ever after “that awfulness.” She married instead an Irish immigrant who, to escape the bunch-violence that ruled his own land, had come to America and, hearing that a “shoe cobbler” was needed, finally to Port William.

I’m hoping this Irish immigrant makes it in to more of Berry’s stories.

 

Joe Donnelly: Bonus Baby (A Baseball Short Story Extra)

I tug on my brim. I tug on it, caress it, and tug on it some more. I take the cap off and slap it against my thigh. I hold it to my chest while I wipe my brow. I pat it, brush it, shape it, and put it back on my head. Then I tug on the brim again.

Baseball season is well under way so here’s a baseball story I read recently. It’s Joe Donnelly’s “Bonus Baby” and was recommended to me by Jay at Bibliophilopolis. It’s  included in the O. Henry Prize Stories of 2016.

o henry prize

Many baseball stories have a father and son relationship and many of them present life and struggle and wonder along with the game. “Bonus Baby” has all this.  Even without baseball, it would be a favorite. Baseball just makes it that much better.

As the narrator pitches, he remembers back to his days growing up in the Midwest where baseball helped him escape his dysfunctional father. Each successful game only gives him more to worry about with his next one. While the reader doesn’t know exactly how old he is, it’s a given that he’s played for a while. The pitcher reminds me in some ways of Dencombe in Henry James’ “The Middle Years”. Past successes don’t outweigh the possibility of future failures:

Baseball had things I could rely on – rules, physics, statistics. It is the world’s most quantifiable sport. Yet it still baffles us. The best hitters still miss two-thirds of the time and the best pitchers still lose a hundred times or more before they’re done. The game was an enigma I couldn’t resist: something I wanted to try to solve even as I knew how far from solving it I might always be.

It’s another story in which I just want to say “Go read it!”

 

 

 

Mary Ladd Gavel: The Rotifer

Deal Me In 2019 – Week 17

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I must pause here to explain that I am a recognizer of people. I am sort of Paganini, or Escoffier, of recognizing. People who say,”I remember faces but I just can’t remember names,” are amateurs; I remember thousands of faces for which I have never known a name.

Mary, the narrator in Mary Ladd Gavel’s “The Rotifer”, observes a rotifer under a microscope in college. The little guy is caught in some algae. As Mary attempts to help, a mishap occurs with the tiny drop of water – or the rotifer’s entire universe, however you want to look at it.

short stories century

This small event isn’t necessarily a major part of the story but it’s the beginning of a quirky little narration by Mary about how her world works and how she might or might not fit into it. As light-hearted as the story may seem, it doesn’t take long to realize we’re seeing something akin to destiny, freewill and maybe even the “butterfly effect” as possible themes.

A few little stories about Mary’s life serve to question how her decisions might help or harm those around her – or even what effect her indecision might have on her life. Or does it really even matter?

Yes, now it sounds kind of deep but it’s actually fun and funny. Quite a feat on the part of the author.

I read this story when I selected the Eight of Spades for week 17 of my Deal Me In 2019 short story project. It’s included in The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike. My Deal Me In list can be seen here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

 

Shortest Way Home by Pete Buttigieg

way home

I rarely read political memoirs – especially the ones by politicians getting ready to run for president. The last one I read was Bobby Jindal’s Leadership and Crisis in 2011. That doesn’t mean that I don’t find politics interesting. I usually watch the presidential elections like I’m watching a movie. Most of them have points of interest along the way. Some are better than others. And then occasionally I’m wishing that one might be just a movie – but, no, it’s real.

It was sometime in 2018 that I first heard of Pete Buttigieg and the possibility that he would run for President. Since he was a mayor of a medium-size Indiana town (South Bend), I was both skeptical and intrigued at the same time. As I’ve seen him interview and speak over the last few months, I’ve been leaning more in the intrigued direction. So that brought me to his recent book Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future.

I was pleasantly surprised at how well-written the book is but after hearing him speak it shouldn’t surprise me. He’s very articulate but yet never condescends or talks down to anyone. His story-telling ability is equally as sharp and entertaining. I was impressed with the research he did to give the reader an idea of what South Bend, Indiana was like during its heyday of the 40’s and 50’s when Studebaker made the city thrive.  He shares his successes while being mayor of South Bend but doesn’t hesitate to share mistakes from which he learned. One of my favorite excerpts is his description of a Farmer’s Market on his running route:

Its feel is still homey, and jars of pickled eggs and strawberry preserves outnumber those of salsa and kombucha. Under its roof on a Saturday morning, it is as if American society never fractured after World War II. Korea vets in flannel shirts down from Michigan, accompanied by ruddy grandsons in Under Armour camo jackets, coexist peacefully with Montessori moms navigating strollers between clumps of grandparents eyeing big baskets of apples and small ones of plums. Trucker hats are worn without irony here; the hipsters are welcome but not in charge.

The book does give details about where he stands on varying political issues; however, I didn’t get the impression that was the significant purpose. Or he at least mixes them up with both broad strokes and intimate details of his growing up in a place he loves and his step-by-step journey into politics.

It’s less about a candidate and more about a man.

I’m wondering if I’ll have a good reason to remember this post in about a year.

 

 

 

Wendell Berry: Pray Without Ceasing (A Short Story Easter Extra)

Wendell Berry tells his short story “Pray Without Ceasing” in varying levels of time. The “present” is technically Andy Catlett as an older man, a grandfather himself, thinking about his own grandfather, Mat Feltner.  Andy then thinks back to when he was about thirty years old and his grandfather was dying. In finding an old newspaper, the thirty year-old Andy visits his grandfather and asks his grandmother, Margaret, to tell him what happened on a July day in 1912 (the date of the newspaper) when Thad Coulter shot and killed his best friend, Ben Feltner – Mat’s father and Andy’s great-grandfather.

Distant Land

Berry also skillfully lets the reader know about the shooting right up front. As he tells the story through Margaret Feltner to Andy, he lets it spiral in to the actual shooting then spiral out from the event with the aftermath, consequences and ultimate redemption. These spirals take the form of numerous points of view but they do so in a manner that is still fitting for Margaret Feltner to talk about. Her home is a small town. She’s talked a lot to her friends, neighbors and family over the years. It makes sense that she would know as much as she does.

Perhaps the most touching aspect of Margaret’s story revolves around Martha Elizabeth, Thad Coulter’s daughter who continues to love her father in the face of his crime:

She loved him, minute by minute, not only as he had been but as he had become. It was a wonderful and fearful thing to him that he had caused such a love for himself to come in to the world and then failed it. He could not have bowed low enough before it and remained above ground.

And Margaret’s further insight into this relationship as told to her grandson might sum up the whole story:

“People sometimes talk of God’s love as if it’s a pleasant thing. But it is terrible, in a way. Think of all it includes. It included Thad Coulter, drunk and mean and foolish, before he killed Mr. Feltner, and it included him afterwards.”

“Pray Without Ceasing” is included in Wendell Berry’s collection of short stories That Distant Land.

Ernest Hemingway: Up in Michigan

Deal Me In 2019 – Week 16

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If any story deserves a TRIGGER WARNING for somebody who has been the victim of sexual assault, it would be Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Up in Michigan”. I had heard from time to time that this story could be disturbing and controversial. And I would have to agree now that I’ve read it.

I’ve been an admirer of Hemingway’s work for a long time so I admit I don’t really know what to do with this story. I can’t really recommend it and it’s difficult to defend it. If someone is studying Hemingway’s work in depth, they could use this story as the epitome (and I use that term in a negative sense) of Hemingway’s hyper-masculine male and subservient female.

Yes, I could point to some of Hemingway’s major novels in which he has some very strong female characters and not-so-strong male characters but I feel it could be interpreted as defending this story so maybe I’ll save that for another post.

I read this story when I selected the Four of Diamonds for Week 16 of my Deal Me In 2016 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be seen here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

 

In The Beginning by Chaim Potok

In the Beginning

“A shallow mind is a sin against God…A man who does not struggle is a fool.”

Many of Chaim Potok’s novels revolve around a relationship between a father and a son – a relationship usually in conflict.

That’s no different in his novel In the Beginning; however, in Potok’s other novels the father and son usually have more in common than different even when the son moves away from some of the traditions the father holds dear. In the case of In the Beginning, though, a very young David Lurie realizes he might be considered polar opposite to his father Max.

Max Lurie is a doer. He prides himself on his strength. He led a small band of Jewish men in fighting against the Cossacks in Poland when many of his faith refused to fight. He saved most of these men’s families and brought them to the United States to start a new life in Brooklyn continuing to work to bring more from Europe during the 1920’s.

Young David is sickly and weak by most standards. He has a huge mind, constantly asking questions and constantly reading books. He doesn’t always know how to relate to people – even those of his own faith who teach at his Jewish school. As a child, he walks alone in the park pretending and dreaming that he is his father fighting the Cossacks and saving his community in Poland.

The conflict of the father and son isn’t simply cerebral. It goes straight to the heart of who each person is. When a grown David tells his father he will be studying the Bible at a secular college with secular students and professors using secular methods and ideas, Max has difficulty accepting David’s plan. At the same time, Max knows that he can’t stop David and even if he could, it wouldn’t be right. This is where Max becomes more similar to Danny Saunders’ father in The Chosen or Asher Lev’s father in My Name is Asher LevMax shows a willingness and knows the necessity in maintaining a relationship with his son – as different as they might be.

As with all of Potok’s novels, In the Beginning proceeds with a slow tender pace in revealing the protagonist’s coming of age as they struggle to find their own way.  And finding their own way never seems to require a complete abandonment of their faith.