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The River Between Us by Richard Peck

THE RIVER BETWEEN US STORYWORLD

The River Between Us cover

This cover gives no indication of the intended audience. Nor does it show that this is the story of a family. Anyone would think Noah were the star, and the faceless woman in the background the stereotypical love interest. This is one of my least favourite children’s book covers.

There are historical notes in the back of The River Between Us but unless you’ve been through the American education system and already know quite a bit about the Civil War and the history of New Orleans, I’d recommend flipping to that first.

  • July 1916 is the wrapper time
  • Summer
  • North America
  • Starts in St Louis, South Illinois. The family lives on Maryland Avenue in the West End. See: Maryland Avenue today. (Peck tends to center his stories in Illinois, and most often in Southern Illinois.)
  • Cars are a big deal to a young boy because unlike today you don’t see them any old where. “It was a big thing to drive a car out of town.” They’re not yet very reliable so preparation for a long trip is important. For example, cracking a raw egg into the radiator so it would hard-boil and seal any leaks. Fuel is to be strapped onto the car itself because there aren’t many fuel stations around yet. Only the upper middle class can afford them (hence the narrator is the son of a doctor). You have to crank it up and the windshield isn’t up for city driving. There are a lot of flat tyres — four in one day is not unusual.
  • This is the story of a journey. Stories with rivers are generally about journeys. See: The Symbolism Of The River In Storytelling.
  • Baseball is important. The local team is called The Browns (and was only later the Baltimore Orioles).
  • World War I is raging across Europe. Americans know it’s just a matter of time before they get caught up in it. They anticipate restrictions on travel once that happens.
  • ‘The War’ just as often refers to the Civil War
  • Grand Tower is a ghost town. There never was much to it but showed some progress after the Civil War, with a saddle factor, cigar plant, gun shops, brick works. There’s a hill called Devil’s Backbone. (These days it’s a park.)
  • The grandparents’ house is like going back in time, with the metonym of a black iron range standing for the earlier era.

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Annie Proulx’s The Governors Of Wyoming

“The Governors Of Wyoming” by Annie Proulx is a short novella — one of her concise sagas — divided into parts.

the governors of wyoming is set in a place like this

WADE WALLS

Our characters are introduced, as well as the dynamics between them. From the title we know to pay close attention to Wade Walls.

Renti – female, chews fruity gum, a small grubby woman in black tights and construction worker boots, ingrained dirt on the backs of her arms, her face handsome and impatient. Hasn’t met Wade before. Renti is from Taos, staying with Roany and her husband . Lives on a ranch 22 miles south of Slope in mima mount country. “Biscuit land”. (Low domes of earth cast up on the plain by ancient rodents or frost action, no one was sure. She’s been a highway construction flagger, run a candle-wrapping machine, sold art in the lesser galleries etc. She lived with a man (Pan) and an Alsatian wolfhound for a year but has now left him after a disturbing dream about a Chihuahua. Has a kitchen that looks like a home decorating magazine, ranch style. Continue reading

Strays Like Us by Richard Peck Storytelling Tips

Strays Like Us is a 1998 middle grade novel by American author Richard Peck. (155 pages)

Peck not only understands the fragile emotions of adolescents, he also knows what kind of characters will pique their interest. In this tender novel, he paints a richly detailed portrait of Molly, a drug-addict’s daughter sent at the age of 12 to live with a great-aunt she has never met. Molly soon discovers others like her in this small town full of secrets.

Publisher’s Weekly starred review

STORY WORLD OF STRAYS LIKE US

Strays Like Us is set in The (American) South but is not a Southern Novel as such. This is one of those American stories which could easily be set elsewhere — like lots of ‘midwestern’ stories set in suburbia or small towns. Molly’s story could belong to many kids all over.

This one happens to take place in small town Missouri. The ‘small’ town is significant because of the way gossip works:

“How did the guys find out anyway?”

“Becasue they don’t let you keep a secret in a town like this.”

Although this is like a 1950s utopia in some ways, there is a lot of poverty in this town and turns out to be an apparent utopia. Richard Peck is making a statement about income inequality when he writes:

“There’s things they can do now for what Fred had,” [Aunt Fay] said finally. “But he didn’t have insurance.”

The story opens with Molly up a tree. She is in semi-hiding up here, melding with nature, and although in reality trees are reliant on each other via their root system, the common understanding of tree symbolism is that they stand ‘tall, proud and alone’, like Molly at the beginning of her character arc.

Strays Like Us tree cover

Molly Moberly in the foreground with neighbour Will in the background.

The exact year of this story is unclear — there is mention of computers and microwaves so I believe it is set in the late 1990s, at time of publication. Still, there is a 1950s feel about it. Locals are starting to feel suspicious of strangers, because until this period everyone has known everyone here. Continue reading

Annie Proulx’s “A Pair A Spurs”

A Pair A Spurs by Annie Proulx is set on a couple of Wyoming Ranches in the late 1990s

A Pair A Spurs by Annie Proulx is set on a couple of Wyoming Ranches in the late 1990s

STORY WORLD

SURROUNDING CULTURE

Rather than open with landscape, sky-scape and weather, this time Annie Proulx opens with a political era. I remember it well, with lots about mad cow disease on the news in the late 1990s:

The coffeepot southeast of Signal had been an o.k. little ranch but it passed down to Car Scrope in bad times — the present time and its near past. The beef-buying states, crying brucellosis which they fancied cattle contracted from Yellowstone bison and elk on the roam, had worked up a fear of Wyoming animals that punched the bottom out of the market. It showed a difference of philosophies, the outsiders ignorant that the state’s unwritten motto, take care a your own damn slef, extended to fauna and livestock and to them. There was a deeper malaise: all over the country men who once ate blood-rare prime, women who once cooked pot roast for Sunday dinner turned to soy curd and greens, warding off hardened arteries, E. coli-tainted hamburger, and cold shakes of undulant fever. They shied from overseas reports of “mad cow” disease. And who would display evidence of gross carnivorous appetite in times of heightened vegetarian sensibility?

This time seems so bleak to people living in this farming area that it is possible to think the end of the world is nigh.

Landmarks, like people, are allegorically named. Continue reading

Proulx’s Bunchgrass Edge Of The World

Farm Scene American Artist (1851–1899) perhaps built in a similar era to the farmhouse in Proulx's short story

Farm Scene American Artist (1851–1899), perhaps built in a similar era to the farmhouse in Proulx’s short story

This modern retelling of The Frog Prince by Annie Proulx was published in the November edition of The New Yorker in 1998 and included in her Close Range collection of short stories.

PROULX’S STORY STRUCTURE

If I hadn’t had it pointed out I probably wouldn’t have picked up, on first reading anyway, that this is a re-visioning of the fairytale The Frog Prince. But this is an Angela Carter kind of subversive re-visioning in which the woman comes up trumps, though not in the patriarchal ideal of ‘happily’ married and subdued, but having chosen her own man and inheriting a property which ordinarily would have passed down the male line. (This is called patrimony.)

In “The Bunchgrass Edge of the World” the frog prince gets substituted by a monstrous, talking tractor. Ironically, the broken down, hybrid tractor shows misogynous prejudice, as it forbids Ottaline to repair it, claiming that “‘It’s men that fixes tractors, not no woman.'”

Thy Truth Then Be Thy Dowry: Questions of Inheritance in American Women’s Literature, edited by Stéphanie Durrans

In common with “The Frog Prince” she’s outside the house, though unable to go very far. Something unexpected starts talking to her ‘at the bottom of the garden’. Both the tractor and the frog are pretty awful characters and you’d never want anything to do with them even if they did transmogrify into handsome princes, though I feel the original readers of Frog Prince fairytales weren’t meant to think so.

There are other fairytale elements to this story. The story starts two generations before the ‘princess’ gets her story. Modern retellers of fairytales don’t do this, but Charles Perrault did. In Perrault’s version of Rapunzel we hear all about her parents and how the mother craved some kind of parsley and sent the father off to steal it from the witch’s garden. This practice of establishing heritage helps to give a story a sense of history, even though short. It also contributes to that ‘deterministic’ feel — a word often used to describe the work of Annie Proulx and fairytales alike. The father is called Aladdin. There is a crop of almost magical wheat — seeded from Aladdin’s pants cuffs when he somersaulted off the porch, exuberant and playful before his new wife.

Even the storyworld seems alive to Ottaline:

The calfskin rug on the floor seemed to move, to hunch and crawl a fraction of an inch at a time. The dark frame of the mirror sank into the wall, a rectangular trench. From her bed she saw the moon-bleached grain elevator and behind it immeasurable range flecked with cows like small black seeds.

This is not quite magical realism, but through Ottaline’s eyes we get a sense of what it’s like to view a grimly realistic world in a magical way. Mirrors, moons and rugs which seem alive — these are all reminiscent of fairytale.

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

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Neo-Regionalism And Realism In Literature

The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck, a well-known example of neo-regionalism.

The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck, a well-known example of neo-regionalism.

REGIONALISM

“In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect, the extremist form of the backwoods South-Western dialects; the ordinary “Pike-Country” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last”

— Huckleberry Finn

Regionalism is an largely American term which refers to texts that concentrate heavily on specific, unique features of a certain region including dialect, customs, tradition, topography, history, and characters. Regionalist writers include Mark Twain and Kate Chopin (The Awakening, 1899), Harper Lee (To Kill A Mockingbird), Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner. Features of regionalist works: Continue reading

Westerns, Anti-Westerns and Neo-Westerns

Western bar scene

What Is A Western?

  • The Western is the national myth of the United States (just as the King Arthur story is the national myth of England).
  • The Western is the last of the great creation myths, because the American West was the last liveable frontier on earth.
  • This story form has been written and rewritten thousands of times. So it has a highly metaphorical symbol web.
  • Westerns and Science Fiction are the most metaphorical/symbolic genres.
  • The Western is the story of millions of individuals journeying west, taming the wilderness and building a home. They are led by a lone-warrior hero who can defeat the barbarians and make it safe for the pioneers to form a village.
  • Like Moses, this warrior can lead his people to the Promised Land but not enter it himself. He is doomed to remain unmarried and alone, forever traveling the wilderness until he and it are gone.
  • While classic Westerns documented the struggle for resources — water, livestock, gold — they were highly colored by nostalgia and enjoyed the bliss of ignorance re: Earth not actually coming with a bottomless refill of natural resources.

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People In Hell Just Want A Drink Of Water by Annie Proulx

“People In Hell Just Want A Drink Of Water”: When it comes to neighbours who’ve been through terrible hardship, no one asks all that much of you. You’re not going to fix their problems, but you can extend just a little kindness and that’ll go a long way.

This is another story about a community rather than an individual. These stories tend to say something about how communities work, treating these groups of people as a flawed individual. I see what people mean when they call Annie Proulx ‘deterministic’. If an individual hero has some choice in how s/he acts, a community is not a sentient being — once a certain social group has been formed, things must take their course. I am feeling that way lately about the state of politics. We’re entering a new age of right-wing horribleness, and there doesn’t seem much we can do about it until ‘things have taken their course’. The best I’m hoping for in 2017 is that this far right thinking will swing back hard the other way, afterwards. After what? I don’t know.

STORY WORLD OF “PEOPLE IN HELL JUST WANT A DRINK OF WATER”

The term ‘geographical determinism’ is the full phrase used to describe the work of Annie Proulx. Alex Hunt explains what that means in The Geographical Imagination Of Annie Proulx: Rethinking Regionalism. It occurs when a text retains elements of local colour fiction but the characters are limited by the surrounding geography and climate. It’s sometimes known as ‘environmental determinism.’

Determinism was popular with geographers in the early decades of the 20th century (when this story is set) but fell out of favour because it became linked to justifications for imperialism and racism. Jared Diamond, who in 1997 wrote Guns, Germs, and Steel did a lot to restart the conversation about determinism and basically made it okay to talk about that again. Annie Proulx was of course writing these Wyoming stories at this exact time. There must have been some sort of zeitgeist. Now it is okay to look again at the ways in which a physical environment (climate, natural resources, disease, plagues) shape individuals and cultures.

You stand there, braced. Cloud shadows race over the buff rock stacks as a projected film, casting a queasy, mottled ground rash. The air hisses and it is no local breeze but the great harsh sweep of wind from the turning of the earth. The wild country – indigo jags of mountain, grassy plain everlasting, tumbled stones like fallen cities, the flaring roll of sky – provokes a spiritual shudder. It is like a deep note that cannot be heard but is felt, it is like a claw in the gut. Continue reading

The Blood Bay by Annie Proulx

At around the same time Annie Proulx published “The Blood Bay”, an episode of Six Feet Under saw Claire in big trouble for stealing a severed foot from her family’s funeral business and taking it with her to school. That episode, like this story, was darkly funny and made use of someone’s severed foot.

Six Feet Under, like The Blood Bay, uses a severed foot as prop in a darkly humorous episode.

Scene from Six Feet Under

It was inevitable that a TV series called something about feet would have to at one point make use of an actual foot. Dark comedy involving the loss of someone’s severed foot was used more recently in episode seven of season two of Animal Kingdom. (“Dig”)

While this is icky, North Americans haven’t been so squeamish about carrying around rabbits’ feet for good luck. Larry McMurtry writes of that practice in his cowboy novels. (Only the left hind foot is lucky.)

Severed human hands have a stronger history in folklore than severed feet. Characters with severed hands tend to be either victims, or monster-like villains. For more on that see Severed Hands as Symbols of Humanity in Legend and Popular Narrative by Scott White. The severed, walking hand also makes for a memorable horror scene.

STORY WORLD OF “THE BLOOD BAY”

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Job History by Annie Proulx Story Technique

Reading “Job History” in 2017, I propose an updated subtitle: “The Life and Times of a Trump Voter”.

Job History Wyoming

A gas station in Wyoming, taken 1984.

 

Annie Proulx doesn’t seem to go public with her voting decisions but her interest in the environment and the ideas in her fiction suggest she’s probably not on board with what’s going on in the USA this year:

[Annie Proulx’s] voice rises: “Nobody can visit the big trees again; the huge forests do not exist. The understorey has gone, and the smaller plants and animals – the ecosystem has been damaged. Change is right with us, and you can get frightened.” I ask if the thought of Donald Trump, a denier of manmade climate change, in the White House frightens her. “I think the country has more or less brought this on themselves,” she says. “I don’t have personal feelings about it because that’s not who I am, but I am watching.”

The Guardian

Whatever the author’s political thoughts, I’m 100% certain Proulx would’ve seen the era of President Trump coming a mile off. Having lived most of her live in rural Wyoming, the story of Leeland Lee, who in 2017 would be about the same age as Donald Trump himself, is a portrait of a Trump Voting Everyman. It’s well worth a read for that reason alone, if you can stomach it. Continue reading

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