Negatives by Annie Proulx Short Story

abandoned house

“Negatives” is a short story by Annie Proulx, first published 1994 in Esquire, later included in the Heart Songs collection. You can read it online, with limited unpaid access. “Negatives” is the most brutal of the stories in this collection. Content note for rape.

Reasons to read this story:

  • If you’re writing a short story and think it may benefit from a ‘separatised’ introduction which forewarns the reader basically how it’s going to unfold. I do wonder at what part of Annie Proulx’s writing process she wrote that introduction. Did she write the rest of the story then realise it needed a little something at the beginning? That’s be interesting to know.
  • In any case, the way Proulx unfolds the story, mentioning the bath scene in the men’s dialogue, then later showing us the scene where Albina asks to have the bath that first time, is an interesting, spirally way to tell a story, and structuring a plot like this leaves the reader with the feeling of a vast unfolding, and even a short story feels like it has many layers.
  • Pathetic fallacy written beautifully: ‘The mountain pressed into the room with an insinuation of augury. Flashing particles of ice dust stippled the air around the house. The wind shook the walls and liquid shuddered in the glass.
  • A character dehumanised, in this case by turning Albina into a dog, in Walter’s eyes. Annie Proulx achieves this partly by telling us about Walter’s fantasises, as relayed at dinner parties, but eventually by stripping her naked. Her physical description also aligns somewhat with that of a dog, as well as the smell she leaves behind in a car (as dogs are inclined to do). Her children have ‘sown the back seat of his car with nits’, and she spends a lot of time sleeping in there. Dogs also sleep a lot. She hangs around like a stray, asking for an increasing amount of scraps. Nor does she retaliate, biting her owner’s hand, when abused like a dog. Her hair is short, ‘like fur’. Everything about Albina is dog-like.
  • A story with no clear ‘main character’: The character who changes (is traumatised) the most is a head we’re not allowed into.
  • This is because “Negatives” is basically what I call a ‘travelling devil’ story, which upends the ‘travelling angel’ trope.
  • The way Proulx writes about the changing of a season, mirroring the change in character emotion, ending the paragraph by honing back in on the characters of this particular story:

THE DEEP AUTUMN CAME QUICKLY. Abandoned cats and dogs skulked along the roads. The flare of leaves died, the mountain molted into gray-brown like a dull bird. A mood of destruction erupted when a bull got loose at the cattle auction house and trampled an elderly farmer, when a car was forced off the road by pimpled troublemakers throwing pumpkins. Hunters came for the deer and blood trickled along their truck fenders. Walter took pictures of them leaning against their pickups. Through binoculars Buck watched loggers clear-cut the mountain’s slope, and Albina Muth slept in the Mercedes every night.

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The Sailor Dog by Margaret Wise Brown

The Sailor Dog cover

The Sailor Dog by Margaret Wise Brown is a Little Golden Book classic, first published 1953. After the success of Mister Dog, Wise Brown and Garth Williams were paired by the publisher the following year.

The Sailor Dog is basically a Robinsonnade for the preschool set. The Robinsonnade is an adventure story which takes place in a static place, like an island. For more on that, see this post. And for more about the role of islands in storytelling see this one.

ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE SAILOR DOG

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Character Study: Tony Soprano

Tony Soprano

Much has been said about the character of Tony Soprano. I’ve explored some of it on this blog;

What more could I possibly learn about character development from the example of Tony Soprano? For storytellers the lessons are as follows: Continue reading “Character Study: Tony Soprano”

Onomatopoeia, Mimesis and Children’s Literature

goh-goh

Someone in a children’s writing forum crowdsourced recently: What does a waterfall sound like?

They were after an onomatopoeic sound. Some replied ‘trickle’. Others said ‘trickle’ is no good at all for a waterfall, as ‘trickle’ suggests a piddling amount of water.

I don’t know what they decided, but I thought of my years learning Japanese. Japanese most definitely has the perfect word to describe the sound of a waterfall: “goh-goh”.

That explains the wonderful and also one of the lesser-known, extremely challenging aspects of learning Japanese non-natively: Everyday Japanese language bursts forth with onomatopoeia, and not just onomatopoeia, either: mimesis in general.

ONOMATOPOEIA AND MIMESIS: THE DIFFERENCE

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The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin by Beatrix Potter

Squirrel Nutkin cover

The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin (1903) is the second picture book written and illustrated by Beatrix Potter. Squirrel Nutkin is an example of a story from the First Age of Children’s Literature, though Beatrix Potter herself did much to usher in the more modern style of children’s story.

Though the page turns and small size of the book are a vital component of the reading experience, you can read The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin at Project Gutenberg, as Beatrix Potter’s work is now in the public domain.

When you think of Beatrix Potter, you probably think of ‘talking animal’ stories. A while back I quoted a taxonomy of animal-ness in (mostly) children’s literature. We have humans in animal-shaped bodies at the top and outright ordinary animals at the bottom. (Or inversed, if you like.)

The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin is interesting in its inclusion of three different levels of animal-ness in the one story:

  1. The squirrels, who can talk (riddles) and who are basically children in the bodies of squirrels. Unlike Peter Rabbit in his little blue jacket, these squirrels are not wearing clothes, but they do use their bushy tails as sails for their log boats, which elevates them into the human realm.
  2. Then there’s their opponent, the owl, who never replies to the prancing and taunting. It becomes clearer and clearer to the reader over the course of the story that the owl perhaps can’t talk, even if he wanted to, because he is a plain old owl! He does live in a ‘house’ (a tree) with a door and he cooks his meat (presumably) because smoke comes out of his ‘chimney’. But apart from these human attributes, the possibility that he might eat the squirrels if he’s going to eat a mole is terrifying, because the squirrels have been making meaty offerings, all the while failing to realise that they themselves are meat.
  3. And the offerings, of course, are the most animalistic of the characters, not the least bit personified. Indeed they are meat rather than animals–the three fat mice, the fine fat mole, seven fat minnows and so on.

THE DANGEROUS STORYWORLD OF SQUIRREL NUTKIN

Unlike Dahl’s Matilda, Nutkin presents outlaw behavior as opposed to promoting outlaw behavior. Unlike Sendak’s Wild Things, Nutkin’s wild revels are no wild rumpus where the border between the fond and the fierce is terrifyingly blurred: “We’ll eat you up—we love you so!” This is not the world of Beatrix Potter, but this is not to say her world is safe. The thing that all three have in common is danger, and it is the thing that makes their stories delightful for children, for childhood is the most dangerous thing in the world. For all of her whimsy, Beatrix Potter never lost sight of reality, even its tensions and terrors. Peter Rabbit’s father was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor. Jemima Puddle-Duck’s eggs were devoured by her canine rescuers. Squirrel Nutkin was mutilated by Old Mr. Brown. The world of Beatrix Potter is the real world: moral, but not moralistic; a world of pursuit and prey, of dangers and delights, of existence and enchantment.

Crisis Magazine

STORY STRUCTURE OF SQUIRREL NUTKIN

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The Appeal of Milly Molly Mandy

Milly Molly Mandy setting out

Milly Molly Mandy remains one of my mother’s favourite books, but even then it was old. Milly Molly Mandy is in fact the great-grandmother of today’s child readers. I’m not sure how popular these stories are among the contemporary audience, but I can say for sure, Milly Molly Mandy entertained at least two generations of children. I never got into them myself, but I did fall in love with the endpaper hand drawn map. There is something so unbearably hygge about that little village. Even now, I open a Milly Molly Mandy book and I want to go back to that village. I may have been too old by the time I encountered my mother’s book. But the impact was clear. I was ten years old and started making maps for my own made-up stories.

My mother’s version features illustrations with coloured-pencil scribbles. The black and white line drawings do look like a colouring-in book. The Milly Molly Mandy series has been reprinted in various formats and some of those are now colour illustrations — sometimes in pastels, sometimes in the limited palette of 1950s and 60s. I still prefer the black and white.

The illustrations were done by the author herself. I believe Joyce Lankester Brisley was a better draughtswoman than she was a prose stylist, but in the end, her greatest strengths were:

  1. Storytelling (in the voice of an oral narrator). Enid Blyton possessed this exact skill.
  2. Knowing how children occupy their time

Lankester Brisley either surrounded herself with children or remembered in amazing detail the experience of being a child. The children in the Milly-Molly-Mandy stories can be found engaged in tasks such as:

  • Keeping ducks company
  • Making mud by pouring water onto dirt
  • Getting wet in the rain, then flapping and quacking like ducks
  • ‘Mending’ a puddle in the road by throwing twigs into it
  • Making their own little loaves alongside the big family loaf

Milly Molly Mandy hair brushing

Likewise, Lankester Brisley understood the psychology of children:

  • Revelations such as the insight that your strict teacher at school is a normal human being and even has her own mother.
  • The desire to do something very useful, to impress the adults in your life (like making stepping stones on a rainy day, for ladies without rubber boots).

But we know virtually nothing about the author’s life. She was born in 1896 in a small seaside town at the bottom of England called Bexhill-on-Sea. Look at historic photos of Bexhill-on-Sea and apart from the fashions, it’s not so different from taking a Google Earth tour of the town on foot. It remains a town known for its historical significance.

We know that as a young woman her parents divorced, which in those days meant automatic poverty for the woman, especially when the woman is supporting three daughters. The daughters were all trained in art, and perhaps the reason their work made it out into the world is precisely because they were forced to seek out income, having lost their father’s income as a middle-class pharmacist.

Milly Molly Mandy on stage

Joyce died at the age of 82, and 2018 marks the 40th anniversary of her death. Her natal family were big into the Christian Science church. Was Joyce a Christian scientist her whole life? It seems she was, publishing Christian texts along with the more general stories such as Milly Molly Mandy. Did she marry? (Where does the Lankester come from? Her husband’s name?) Did she have children of her own?

In my imagination Joyce was close to her sisters. She died just a few months after one of the sisters, which is either coincidence or a sign of emotional closeness, or both. I imagine Joyce was active in the church and perhaps taught Sunday school, so if she didn’t have children of her own, I imagine she saw many children regardless.

NARRATIVE VOICE OF MILLY MOLLY MANDY STORIES

The stories are written in conversational, oral storyteller style with plenty of parenthetical asides, as if the storyteller has forgotten to explain one bit, but they’re shoving it in now to clarify.

However, each story absolutely includes the seven minimum steps of a complete and satisfying story. In fact, Lankester Brisley is often very clear about these steps, whether she knew them consciously or not. Modern stories for a young reader tend to be less obvious about where the steps occur. I think this is partly because contemporary books are expected to entertain adult co-readers as well as children themselves, and adults have seen far more story. (To be fair, even today’s children have been exposed to far more stories than children of the 1920s were.)

Milly Molly Mandy and little friend Susan

STORY STRUCTURE OF MILLY-MOLLY-MANDY GETS TO KNOW TEACHER

WEAKNESS/NEED

Milly Molly Mandy is scared of the new teacher because the teacher is strict.

DESIRE

It has been arranged that the new teacher stay with Milly Molly Mandy’s family for a few nights until she gets herself sorted with accommodation. Milly Molly Mandy does not want this.

This is an example of a desire not to have something. To cast it the other way around: Milly Molly Mandy wants the freedom to be her normal carefree house while in her own home. School is school; home is home.

OPPONENT

The teacher, because Milly Molly Mandy doesn’t want her in her home, but the teacher arrives regardless.

PLAN

Milly’s plan is to be on her best behaviour and to impress the teacher. Ultimately, the character of Milly Molly Mandy is a good little girl, serving well as a model for behaviour. But what makes her real, and what keeps the character away from didacticism, is her ‘imperfect’ psychology. Milly has doubts, fears and anxieties like every other child, but despite all that, she does her best.

BATTLE

There is no traditional Battle sequence in this cosy story, but we have the proxy conflict of the baking scene in which teacher is cast as the inverse of everything Milly Molly Mandy thought she was.

Ultimately, teacher is wearing Mother’s apron, which casts her firmly in the role of someone familiar and knowable. Moreover, by learning how to make turn-overs, the teacher is cast in the role of student — a complete and utter inversion for Milly. Billy Blunt says, “Fancy a teacher playing with dough!” The children now realise that teacher was once a child, too. She is all the human things at once — a complete person.

This battle takes place entirely in Milly’s head as she makes her own (failed) dough creations alongside.

SELF-REVELATION

Child characters more often have revelations about life in general than self-revelations.

The revelation is that Miss Edwards is a regular human.  Though this isn’t a self-revelation as such, the lesson teaches Milly Molly Mandy something about humankind, and by extension, this is about herself. Though this is not on the page, it’s clear that Miss Edwards is acting in a certain role while she is at school. This is the first time Milly Molly Mandy has realised that people play roles according to expectations. This links back to how Milly Molly Mandy has been on her best behaviour with a teacher in the house. She, too, has been playing a role.

Sometimes the revelation phase of the story simply means the main character has changed their mind about something. In this case, Milly is sad to see her teacher leave. The valence has flipped from negative to positive.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Milly Molly Mandy needn’t be frightened of Miss Edwards at school because she knows she’s a fully-rounded human and is playing a teacherly role.

 

Stephen King’s IT Storytelling Techniques

IT 2017 movie poster

IT is a 1986 horror novel by Stephen King, first adapted for screen in 1990, and most recently in 2017. This blog post is about the storytelling of the 2017 film.

THE TERRIBLE MONSTER OF IT

I liked what one reviewer had to say about IT: The monster in this film is whatever the story requires him to be for the scene. Indeed, this monster is the ultimate shapeshifter, sometimes calm, sometimes unleashed. This monster is a writer’s dream — he seems to have no rules. Why doesn’t every horror writer create a monster like this? He’s awesome.

He’s also one-dimensional. Continue reading “Stephen King’s IT Storytelling Techniques”

Somersault Film Storytelling Techniques

Somersault_movie_poster

Last month I wrote about the film American Honey, set in America but written and directed by Andrea Arnold, who is English. If there’s an Australian equivalent of American Honey, Somersault is it. Somersault is a 2004 film written and directed by another (all-too-rare) female filmmaker, Cate Shortland. Continue reading “Somersault Film Storytelling Techniques”

Mister Dog by Margaret Wise Brown and Garth Williams

Mr Dog cover

Mister Dog, written by Margaret Wise Brown, was first published by Little Golden Books in 1952. This was the last book published in Wise Brown’s lifetime before she died age 42.

Garth Brown illustrated the text in his distinctive Garth Brown style.

The story is about a dog with the stand-out gag that he ‘belongs to himself’. This is reflected in his vaguely recursive (but ultimately nonsensical) name: Crispin’s Crispian*. I believe this was the name of Wise Brown’s own dog, and that the dog ran the show. It makes sense that the author thought of her dog as an individual with his own mind. By all accounts, the author herself refused to be constrained.

*Crispin and Crispian are also meant to be the twin patron saints of certain workmen like cobblers, curriers and tannery workers. I think she probably chose this name because it sounds poetic, not because it makes sense. (Crispin’s Crispin makes sense.)

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Scuffy The Tugboat by Gertrude Crampton

Scuffy The Tugboat

The Little Golden Books series was launched in 1942, just as the second world war ended. Children needed to hunker down with cosy stories (along with their parents). Scuff The Tugboat was one of the earlier publications of this highly successful franchise, first printed in 1946, and the epitome of ‘cosy’. Now you can buy an edition with a big 75th Birthday Celebrations on the front.

What makes this book a classic? Is there anything special about it, to be replicated by modern picture book writers? Continue reading “Scuffy The Tugboat by Gertrude Crampton”