Short Stories All the Time

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... a few of my thoughts about 900, mostly contemporary, short stories.
Showing posts with label Barrett. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Barrett. Show all posts

19 April, 2017

Andrea Barrett, "Servants of the Map"

In 1863, Max Vigne travels to the Himalayas to survey the mountain range with the Grand Trigonometrical Survey of India as a plane-tabler. He's left his pregnant wife at home in England with their toddler, Elizabeth.

Max becomes most interested in geographical botany and eventually, despite the hardships, wants to remain another year. The reader watches as a man evolves and changes in his habitat just as the plants he observes have adapted over time. Max and Clara are so close, so necessary she is to him, as a young married couple that he explains their relationship as follows. "I can only make sense of my new life the way I have made sense of everything, since we first met: by describing it to you. That great gift you have always had of listening, asking such excellent questions--when I tell you enough to let you imagine me clearly, then I can imagine myself."

Then later his feelings have evolved. "Now we are apart, trying to maintain our connection over this immense distance. Trying to stay in touch without touch; how that effort changes us. Perhaps even deforms us."

Then he applies to their relationship that which happens in botany. "Only now do I begin to grasp the principles of growth and change in the plants I learned to name in the woods...through all these transformations one can still discern the original morphology...In our separation our lives are changing, our bond to each other is changing."


Max wants more and more to further his knowledge yet feels torn because he always wants to be home with Clara and their two children. "But he would like also to feel that he has broadened himself." And, "He is no longer the person she wrote to, almost a year ago now." And, now his seeing "is becoming more important to him than anything." He's turning into someone he doesn't recognize.

And finally, Max formulates the question that applies to both people and plants. "How do the species that have risen here differ from those in other places? How do they make a life for themselves, in such difficult circumstances?" He plans to break it to Clara gently, in stages, that he wants to remain in the Himalayas for another year.

The descriptions of the mountains and glaciers and stories of warring parties and the lengths men will go to for companionship round out the story. It's a wonderful depiction of a man in a harsh landscape trying to answer and formulate questions about life and adaptation and evolution.

Andrea Barrett has taken several historical people and events and fleshed out their adventurous stories with her imagination.

"Servants of the Map" was first published in Salmagundi in  the fall issue of 1999/2000, No. 124/125.  Then it was included in both the Best American Short Stories anthology as well as the O'Henry Prize Stories. "Servants of the Map" is the first story in the collection of the same title.

16 April, 2017

Andrea Barrett, "Wonders of the Shore"

Originally published in Tin House and then included in the 2016 issue of The Best American Short Stories, "Wonders of the Shore" is divided into five sections, each beginning with a "free adaptation" from books by female naturalists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Celia Thaxter in Her Garden, 1892,
by Childe Hassam
Daphne Bannister and Henrietta Atkins travel to the Isles of Shoals where Daphne is called upon to entertain and educate guests at Celia Thaxter's hotel. Celia Thaxter, 1835-1894, was a poet and writer and gardener on the largest island in the group, Appledore Island. She hosted many creative guests, "Among her well-known friends were Whittier, Sarah Orne Jewett, and the painters William Morris Hunt and Childe Hassam. Nathaniel Hawthorne visited her island cottage."

The story takes place during a three-week working vacation for Daphne and Henrietta on Appledore Island. While Henrietta entertains herself after a bit of a tif with Daphne, Henrietta has a fling with a house guest artist painter, Sebby Quint. The last chapter acts as an epilogue.

There's some drama interspersed throughout the story. A farmer, Mason, wanted to marry Henrietta but she lied and said he broke it off with her when she in fact dumped him. There was some gossip about Henrietta and her friend, Daphne, around Keuka Lake, with questions of their sexual relationship.

What I like most about the story is the way Andrea Barrett weaves historical people and natural science into a dramatic set of scenes illustrating that human beings are social animals that can be watched and analyzed just as the micro-organisms at the edge of the ocean. "...full of fascination for one who has learned to read them."

It takes a gifted writer to successfully open a story with a forenote and then a fairly long paragraph describing the design of a book.

05 December, 2016

Andrea Barrett, "Open House"

This story, "Open House," takes place in 1919 just before the 18th Amendment takes effect and makes prohibition the law of the land. The town in New York wine country has just made it through the influenza epidemic and WWI. The Durand family, after not hosting the previous year's open house party, hosts the annual thank you party for their employees and the town in general. Leon and Opal Durand run the largest winery in the Keuka Lake area. They have three grown sons, only one of whom is married, Didier. He has a son, Charlie, who is the only male to carry on the family name which is of concern to Nana, the matriarch. Slowly developed throughout the story is the complicated history of Didier and his wife, Chloe. Charlie wanting to become an archaeologist brings this complex familial history to the fore but only to those who already know the truth. It gives his father consternation when Charlie's teacher, Henrietta, suggests that he go to Pennsylvania to study which causes Didier to take action, a betrayal. The relationships between family members, townspeople, teacher, schoolmates slowly and deftly builds during the evening of this large open house party.

About thirty-two pages long, written in shifting point-of-view, and is divided into eight sections.

"Open House" is in the current issue, Volume 19, Issue 63, of American Short Fiction.

One of my favorite lines: "She'd noted his rare lack of defensiveness and his ability to accept criticism easily, which made it possible for him to learn almost anything."

Subtlety: "Perhaps it was his own brother's leaning that made him so peculiarly interested in her
relationship with Daphne."