Robert Penn Warren: When The Light Gets Green (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 19)

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Then the leaves began to ruffle like they do when the light gets green, and my grandfather said to me,”Son, it’s gonna hail.”

My appreciation for Kentucky author Robert Penn Warren grows with every story of his that I read and that didn’t change with “When the Light Gets Green”.

Robert Penn Warren

A young boy gives the reader a look at his grandfather in the years just prior to World War I. The grandfather fought in the Civil War and made less than successful attempts at raising horses and tobacco. His daughters called him”visionary” because he read books and memorized poetry but also blame his lack of success on this visionary aspect.

Warren seamlessly describes the landscape as the grandson describes his grandfather. As beautiful as this natural world might be, it’s never quite considered a friend and in some ways it’s an enemy – a world that destroys as much as it might give.

The reader knows nothing about the grandson’s parents other than they are not around. His aunt and uncle also live with his grandfather and as war breaks out and his grandfather ages, the reader knows that he no longer lives with them.

While the grandson recognizes that he has no feelings for his grandfather, Warren manages to give this story an emotional punch for the reader.

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This story is included in Robert Penn Warren’s collection The Circus in the Attic and Other Stories which I borrowed from my public library. I read it when I selected the Seven of Clubs for Week 19 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.

Another Anniversary Top Ten List

Today is the Fifth Anniversary of Mirror With Clouds and to celebrate, I’m posting my top ten short stories of 2016 with some of my favorite quotations underneath the title (and then my own comments in red):

10.) Brooklyns Lose – William Heuman

He didn’t put Kluszewski on, neither,” this guy says grinning. “Klu hit it an’ kept goin’.”

This guy jokes, yet. This is a time for jokes when you have a ball game sewed up eight-to-seven in the ninth, and you lose it with a home-run ball.

I look out the window, and the guy says, “So tomorrow’s another day.”

I don’t even look at him. That kind of guy I don’t look at.

I enjoyed the baseball stories I read this year, and while there may have been other stories with more literary merit in this category, I just couldn’t help finding this one my favorite of the bunch – mostly for its fantastic use of Brooklyn dialect.

 

 

9.) Old Red – Caroline Gordon

Ah, a stouthearted one, Mary! She had never given up hope of changing him, of making him over into the man she thought he ought to be. Time and again she almost had him. And there were long periods, of course, during which he had been worn down by the conflict, one spring when he himself said, when she had told all the neighbors, that he was too old now to go fishing anymore….But he had made a comeback. She had had to resort to stratagem. His lips curved in a smile, remembering the trick.

Caroline Gordon and her recurring character Aleck Maury was one of the more pleasant discoveries I made this year.

 

 

8.) Double Birthday – Willa Cather

“…this is the only spot I know in the world that is before-the-war. You’ve got a period shut up in here; the last ten years of one century, and the first ten years of another. Sitting here, I don’t believe in aeroplanes, or jazz, or Cubists. My father is nearly as old as Doctor Englehardt, and we never buy anything new; yet we haven’t kept it out…”

Willa Cather puts another great spin on the early Twentieth Century – a time period that continues to fascinate me.

 

 

7.) Homeland – Barbara Kingsolver

My great-grandmother belonged to the Bird Clan. Hers was one of the fugitive bands of Cherokee who resisted capture in the year that General Winfield Scott was in charge of prodding the forest people from their beds and removing them westward. Those few who escaped his notice moved like wildcat families through the Carolina mountains…

Known (to me) for her novel The Poisonwood Bible, this was the first of Kentucky author Barbara Kingsolver’s work that I’ve read. Another story is included in Deal Me In2017.

 

 

6.) The Life You Save May Be Your Own – Flannery O’Connor

Every now and then her placid expression was changed by a sly isolated little thought like a shoot of green in the desert.

Technically, I didn’t read this story this year. I read it a couple of years ago; however, Jay selected it for a great guest post. I couldn’t let a technicality like that keep me from including a Flannery O’Connor story in my top ten list.

 

5.) Christmas Gift – Robert Penn Warren

The live cigarette, burned almost to the very end, hung at the corner of the boy’s lips, glowing fitfully and faintly with his speech. It hung there, untouched by his hands, which were thrust under the rug. He no longer drew the smoke in; it seemed to seep in without conscious effort on his part, drifting from his nostrils thinly with his breath.

A great author who happens to be from Kentucky brings tobacco and cigarette smoking to new literary heights.

 

 

4.) The Turkey Season – Alice Munro

There was the Turkey Barn, on the edge of a white field, with a row of big pine trees behind it, and always, no matter how cold and still it was, these trees were lifting their branches and sighing and straining. It seems unlikely that on my way to the Turkey Barn, for an hour of gutting turkeys, I should have experienced such a sense of promise and at the same time of perfect, impenetrable mystery in the universe, but I did.

This is the only story that wasn’t included in my Deal Me In 2016 short story project. I read an Alice Munro story each month this year and “The Turkey Season” (I read it for April) jumped out as a favorite early on. An older female protagonist looks back at a time when she was younger. While this concept appears to be a staple of Munro’s stories, this story has a slightly more positive tone than others.

 

 

3.) A Father’s Story – Andre Dubus

And He says: I am a Father too.

Yes, I say, as You are a Son Whom this morning I will receive; unless You kill me on the way to church, then I trust You will receive me. And as a Son You made Your plea.

Yes, He says, but I would not lift the cup.

I had not heard of Andre Dubus prior to putting this story on my list for 2016, but the raw spirituality made it a favorite.

 

 

2.) The Whore’s Child – Richard Russo

“Are we ever going to meet the father?” one student wanted to know. “I mean, she yearns for him and he gets compared to Christ, but we never see him directly. We’re, like, told how to feel about him. If he doesn’t ever show up, I’m going to feel cheated.”

Sister Ursula dutifully noted this criticism, but you had only to look at the old woman to know that the father was not going to show up. Anybody who felt cheated by this could just join the club.

I rediscovered Richard Russo with this story. The structure is both unique and perfect. I want to read more of his short stories in 2017.

 

 

1.) The Diary of Adam and Eve – Mark Twain

Wheresoever she was, there was Eden.

I admit that there is very little separating my top 4 stories, but I was so surprised at Mark Twain’s ability to combine satire and sentiment in this story that it’s remained my favorite since I read it back in February.

Robert Penn Warren: Blackberry Winter (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 40)

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When you are nine, you know that there are things that you don’t know , but you know that when you know something you know it. You know how a thing has been and you know that you can go barefoot in June. You do not understand that voice from back in the kitchen which says that you cannot go barefoot outdoors and run to see what has happened and rub your feet over the wet shivery grass and make the perfect mark of your foot in the smooth, creamy, red mud and then muse upon it as though you had suddenly come upon that single mark on the glistening auroral beach of the world.

Until reading Robert Penn Warren’s short story “Blackberry Winter”, I had never heard of the term. From the story, it’s described as cold weather during summer. I read this story for Week 40 of my Deal Me In 2016 short story project when I drew the King of Hearts. 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 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Home and Beyond: An Anthology of Kentucky Short Stories

The cold weather brings a storm into the life of Seth who narrates the story. While the story is only about this specific storm, even from the perspective of a nine year-old boy, the reader understands that this isn’t the first storm and flood to hit his rural Tennessee home in 1910, nor is it difficult to understand how this storm will wreck havoc on the economy and surrounding families.

“Blackberry Winter” reminded me of Ray Bradbury’s stories – perhaps because it’s about a child and it’s about summer. The difference would be that this story is less idyllic than Bradbury’s tend to be although it’s not without a little charm.

Seth sees his father as many young boys see their fathers – strong, heroic, protective. But Warren creates Seth’s mother to be just as strong and protective. He gets a sense of security from both of them. As Seth hears conversations from neighbors about whether drowned cows can be eaten and interacts with a tramp who is willing to bury dead chickens for money, the reader subtley begins to see a contrast. It’s not a contrast between the rich and poor (it doesn’t appear anyone is rich in this story), the haves and the have-nots, or the lucky and the unlucky. I would say the contrast is between those who give up and those who don’t.

 

 

Robert Penn Warren : Goodwood Comes Back (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 22)

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It wasn’t long before he got out of his chair, though, and lay on the grass, just like he always used to do, lying relaxed all over just like an animal. I was a little bit embarrassed at first, I reckon, and maybe he was, too, for we hadn’t sort of sat down together like that for near fifteen years, and he had been away and been a big league pitcher, at the top of his profession almost, and here he was back. He must have been thinking along the same lines, for after he had been there on the grass a while he gave a sort of laugh and said, “Well, we sure did have some pretty good times when we were kids going around this country with our guns, didn’t we?” I said we sure did. I don’t know whether Luke really liked to remember the times we had or whether he was just polite and trying to get in touch with me again, so to speak.

I love the sidekick narrator. Robert Penn Warren’s short story “Goodwood Comes Back” gives a great example of one. Unnamed, the narrator, as a kid, hangs out (or is allowed to hang out) with his more popular friend, Luke Goodwood. Luke also happens to be very good at baseball unlike the narrator.

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From the grown up narrator, the reader learns of Luke’s small southern town ways as well as his almost but not quite successful baseball career. Much of the story revolves around a little bit of childhood reminiscing on the narrator’s part and some brief encounters with Luke after he returns from his baseball career. The title implies Luke’s return home; however, he’s not the only one who has left. The narrator himself has left and only runs into Luke when he returns home to visit his sister. While the reader never gets answers, it seems as though the narrator perhaps has become more successful than Luke but still has a little bit of the childhood awe he used to feel.

This story is a great example of comparison and contrast between the sidekick and his friend. Warren’s writing style is simple, stripped down, with some southern dialect that works well.

I read this story when I selected the King of Diamonds for my Deal Me In 2016 short story project. It’s included in my copy of Baseball’s Best Short Stories edited by Paul D. Staudohar. My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

Robert Penn Warren: Christmas Gift (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 14)

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The live cigarette, burned almost to the very end, hung at the corner of the boy’s lips, glowing fitfully and faintly with his speech. It hung there, untouched by his hands, which were thrust under the rug. He no longer drew the smoke in; it seemed to seep in without conscious effort on his part, drifting from his nostrils thinly with his breath.

It’s Christmas in April here at Mirror with Clouds! After reading Alice Munro’s “The Turkey Season” which I had a feeling would have something of a holiday theme (and it did), I selected the Ace of Spades for Week 14 of my Deal Me In 2016 short story project which corresponds to Robert Penn Warren’s “Christmas Gift”. Each year, I purposely include a story that has a Christmas sounding title just to see when it might show up and Warren’s story is the one I included this year. While Christmas is never directly mentioned in the story, some of the details (not least of which is the title) give the impression  that the setting is sometime around December.

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At the beginning of the story, Sill Lancaster, a boy who I would say is about ten years old, has hitched a ride (on a horse drawn wagon) into town to find a doctor for his pregnant sister. The locals at a store give him directions to the doctor and some red and white peppermint sticks.

He finds the doctor who hitches up his horse to his wagon and takes Sill back to his sister. The bulk of the story is Sill’s ride back home with the doctor. In fact, the story ends before they get to the Lancaster house. From the short pieces of conversation between the doctor and Sill, we find out that Sill’s sister is from his mom’s side of the family, not his dad’s. It appears that the sister is not married – at least a husband is not mentioned. The doctor knows of Sill’s father and understands that most people don’t like him.

The doctor rolls his own cigarette and drops the tobacco bag into Sill’s lap. In a powerful scene, Sill, not sure of what the doctor will think, eventually opens the bag and rolls his own cigarette, too. In exchange, the boy gives the doctor one of his peppermint sticks.

Given the approximate age of the boy, these two gifts say more about the givers than about Sill. The locals at the store think of him as a child. The doctor understands the unspoken circumstances of Sill’s family life and knows he’s more of a man. Maybe more of one than he should have to be.

My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis. This story is included in my copy of The Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike.