King Bait by Keri Hulme Short Story Study

king bait keri hulme

“King Bait” is a short story by Keri Hulme, author of The Bone People, which won the Booker Prize. The setting is a magical realist New Zealand. “King Bait” is a good mentor text:

  • If writing in the oral tradition, inspired by the tall tale
  • If writing a story with supernatural elements in which the characters never understand the whys and wherefores of the phenomenon. (There’s an unwritten rule about telling such stories — read on for more.)
  • A good example of a short story which links opening sentence to final sentence, creating circularity and a sense of a conclusion.

In “King Bait” we see a number of features common to Keri Hulme’s narrative style:

  • New Zealand qualities: Content – whitebaiting, Friday night at the pub; Language – Maori words e.g. kai (food)
  • Mixes colloquial language with poetic prose. She makes use of colloquialisms in dialogue to convey characters and their lifestyles. When rising to the thematic climax she is inclined to make use of poetic techniques.
  • Very graphic description – sex, violence, disgusting descriptions of blood e.g. ‘moise warm groove’
  • Dense use of symbolism e.g. hooks are symbolic of many things. Lots of symbolism is left mysterious and ambiguous, like the cones and goblets of Hooks and Feelers.
  • Magic realism
  • Uses first person narration but with irony and precision. She as the reader and we as the readers are aware of things the main character is not. The first person is often androgynous.
  • Use of ellipsis. She often leaps forward and leaves the readers to form our own connections. Ellipsis serves to economise space, add mystery and encourage alertness. Absence can be more powerful than presence because the imagination can take over.
  • Paralinguistic features such as unconventional capitalisation, running words together, separating words (parataxis)
  • Varied main characters. Hulme is able to transcend gender.
  • Like Katherine Mansfield, Hulme uses idiomatic expressions of her time to build character. e.g. Katherine Mansfield says ‘diddums’. Hulme says ‘bloody oath’.
  • Stories are multi-layered. Both Katherine Mansfield and Hulme are interested in subconscious drives and motivations.
  • Unlike Katherine Mansfield, Hulme is inclined to avoid describing beautiful things such as flowers, dwelling instead on the macabre. She shares this in common with American writer Annie Proulx.
  • Mansfield is often omnipresent, writing from an omniscient point of view. Hulme takes one viewpoint.



Every country has its weird delicacy. For this white girl, who grew up in the South Island of New Zealand, that weird delicacy was whitebait. Ask me to describe them? They taste of squish and air. It’s not about the flavour, you see. They look like strips of grated potato, which is what our mother used to bulk out the patties when there wasn’t enough whitebait to go around — which there never was — because you rarely catch a family sized amount. If you want to buy whitebait from the fish shop, it costs a fortune. There’s one difference though, between grated spud patties and proper whitebait patties: the crunch. As kids we were glad not to have to endure those eyes, which crack between your teeth. We preferred the hash brown version. Whitebait enthusiasts LIKE the eyes. Indeed, that’s the entire reason for eating them. When creating the cheapo version, some people have been known to sprinkle poppy seeds into their grated potato just to recreate the sensation of crunchy little black eyes. In the West, we rarely consume animals in their entirety. Not in modern life. But certain water creatures are one exception. (Mussels are another, but let’s not get into those.)

This eye-eating culinary fetish is creepy, and Keri Hulme must have thought so too, because in 1984 she published a story about white bait, with focus on the eyes. “King Bait” is published in her first short story collection, Te Kaihau (The Windeater). This was one of our high school set texts. Our English teacher introduced us to the concept of magical realism with this particular story. (The following year he introduced us to The Bone People, Keri Hulme’s masterwork, which I had to read again in English 101 at university, which is when I read it properly, and even looked up the meaning of ‘pederast’.)

Our retired neighbours took me whitebaiting once. I was six. By coincidence, Te Kaihau (and this story) was published that same year. Our neighbour Don wore very long white gumboots which came up to his thigh. He could wade far enough into the river to set nets without getting his feet wet. Meanwhile, Noelene and I set about making a cup of tea. We caught one whitebait, singular. It contained less meat than your average garden worm. I don’t remember making it into a patty. We probably threw it back.


In New Zealand, the West Coast is a place where rain is measured in metres. The West Coast catches most of the torrential downpours coming off the ocean — across the island, the main city of Christchurch is dry by comparison. I grew up in Christchurch. I had an uncle from the West Coast — he was drawn back there at every opportunity, to reflect quietly, to fish, to drink. Once a West Coaster, always a West Coaster. There’s a separate West Coast wave which only Coasters use. They’re seen as different and feel that they’re different. It’s a good place to start a cult.

A small town on the West Coast is a good retreat if you are — as Keri Hulme describes herself and her community — “intellectually-different”.

Of anywhere in New Zealand, you can almost believe magical things do happen over that side, over the mountain, exposed to the Tasman Sea.

The story is set in a specific, real place — under The Cobden Bridge. To be honest, I get a bit homesick just looking at the streetview. It’s such an archetypically New Zealand scene.

The river is an important geological feature of Greymouth. Rivers in storytelling can symbolise many things, and here the river symbolises plenitude. It also symbolises the Power of Nature.



“King Bait” is written in the tradition of a tall story — heavily associated with hunting, fishing and camping. The tone is conversational, opening with:

I think this season’ll be the last, you know.

The rest of the story explains why the narrator thinks that. The oral feel is achieved with questions, as if there’s a narratee present in the room:

How did your mother cook them when she got them from the shop?

The modern legend “King Bait” is told via a first person narrator but this is a story of a town event, and a story about human nature. The viewpoint character has the character arc — a new belief that the world wasn’t quite as she saw it before.


We are told in the opening paragraph that the storyteller doesn’t know what to make of the tale she’s about to tell:

Here I am, wound round in a welt of words, with a mystery on my hands, and very uncertain what to say about it. But this is the core of the matter, the heart of the nut: King Bait.

This is a clear connection to the Anagnorisis part of the story. (The psychological shortcoming always is.)


Surface desire: A successful fishing trip with a feed worth of whitebait, like everyone else in the town.

This year I’m all enthusiasm. Buy myself the regulation round Grey net, and a bloody great pole to go with it. Equip myself with gumboots, get out old fishing clothes, and head down to the river at odd hours, waiting on changing tides. […] hopeful of a nice little pudding at the bottom of the nylon bag. Or a very large one, for the season’s started out a boomer. Tons of bait about. Happy faces all around, reflecting my smug grin. Full stomachs abounding, appetite satisfied, bankbook replete, and yet expecting much, much more.

This hooks into a main idea of the story: Greed. The narrator started off with low expectations of a good feed, but when she saw it was a good season, her expectations rose accordingly. Even on the night before, the narrator has been enjoying herself at the pub, and has a belly full of whitebait. She doesn’t want for anything more at that point.

Deep desire: To believe in something bigger than human life itself. I believe the narrator is hoping for some external force to put a lid on her untamed desires, which get bigger and bigger according to circumstance.


This is a tough one. The massive whitebait (named “King Bait”) that comes down the river doesn’t pose any overt threat to the whitebaiting community. But Keri Hulme injects much needed opposition with the character of the ‘thigh-booted, dungareed individual, made distant and inhuman by his action. For he is swinging his net like an automaton, scooping the bait, flinging it silver and anywhere onto the shore. There is saliva hanging in a shining string from the corner of his mouth, and I am not so far away that I can’t see the money-glaze on his eyes.’

By the way, the description of this man accords with descriptions of whitebait in a close up shot — the ‘shining string’ of saliva most of all. The technique of linking humans to animals is something I notice especially often in short stories compared to in longer works. Alice Munro does it in “Runaway“, linking a human character to a goat. In modern illustrations of The Pied Piper, the piper is often depicted as ratlike. Caleb by Gary Crew is another illustrated short story example, this time comparing a person to an insect. Angela Carter uses the technique in “Lizzie’s Tiger”, comparing Lizzie Borden to a circus tiger.


Everyone catches the fish and cooks them up and eats them. This is conveyed succinctly, and also creepily:

All over the Coast the hiss of hot fat and the crunching of little eyes…


The Battle scene is better described as a Climax in this particular story. On the other hand, there is a big struggle, but not between fish and people — the fish themselves are unlike normal whitebait — once caught they just lie there, as sacrifice.

The story next zooms in on the man who is possessed with greed. The narrator herself is knowingly possessed, pushing her way through ‘small fry and lame old ladies’. This is a big struggle between people with themselves and their own need for more and more and more. This was a recurring theme in work throughout the 1980s, and probably since the Mad Men era actually. Until the business of advertising kicked off, people could live in relative peace without constantly being told they needed the next latest thing. A picture book example with the same message is More and Better by Margaret Neve, published in 1980.


The narrator describes herself in a knowing way. She knows full well that on the night of King Bait, she was as crazed with greed as anyone else. She has not gone easy on herself, admitting to her audience how she pushed through weaker characters to get to the great feed. The anagnorisis concerns her own psychology.

As for where the river of bait came from and where they’re going, the narrator remains perplexed. In this regard, “King Bait” by Keri Hulme is the inverse of “In The Pit” by Annie Proulx.

“King Bait”: psychological revelation without our character understanding aspects of the plot.

“In The Pit”: our character comes to understand what happens regarding the plot, but there’s no anagnorisis regarding his own psychology, shortcoming and need.

And that’s the key to writing a supernatural story in which the supernatural phenomenon is never explained. Readers will accept supernatural stories with no setting explanation, but the writer is absolutely obliged to include another kind of personal anagnorisis, emphasis on SELF. Otherwise the story will feel pointless and you’ll get complaints that it’s unbelievable.


The final snippets of dialogue “I hope they get there” and “God love us all, but are they ever coming back?” stuck in my mind, even though I read this story years ago.

For story crafting purposes it doesn’t matter that these questions remain unanswered, because the Anagnorisis was so robust: People are greedy and in times of plenty keep wanting more. We all have that tendency within is, and we must fight it at all costs.

We’ve had enough to expect this event will never happen again, signalled in the opening sentence. The final sentence therefore answers the question posed in the first, creating a circular ending.

Runaway by Alice Munro Short Story

Runaway cover Alice Munro

“Runaway” is the first short story of Alice Munro’s 2004 collection. It was also published in The New Yorker, where you can read it online. “Runaway” makes for a great mentor text for the following reasons:

  • Nuance of human motivations. The desire is at the ‘complex’ end of the spectrum — our main character doesn’t actually know what it is she wants. How do you write that kind of character, when we’re told over and over that our main character has to ‘want’ something? Carla is a great case study.
  • A Plan which is actually a fantasy plan, but still works as a proxy.
  • A Battle scene which follows the ‘real’ big struggle.
  • A Anagnorisis had by two characters first presented as ‘parallels’, now revealed to be ‘inverse’ characters. One achieves more insight into her own psychology; the other — we extrapolate — never will. The latter does realise something — a proxy revelation — just not about herself.


horse fog

Stories which place a rich and poor character side-by-side make for excellent conflict. Annie Proulx made the most of this in her collection Heart Songs, in which rich city folk come into poor rural areas and buy up expensive properties, trying to bend the existing world to their whims — and often succeeding, with casualties.

Rural areas are perhaps the most realistic place you’ll find rich and poor living literally side by side. Farmers themselves fall outside the traditional socioeconomic delineations used by economists — while wealthy in assets they are often living frugally. In Munro’s short story “Runaway”, we have a genuinely well-off woman of the academic class living on a bit of land next to a young couple with nothing but dreams of running a horse farm. Clark has managed to save enough to buy the land, but they live in a trailer on it. This rich-next-to-poor scenario is common in rural areas — the owner/renter divide is very real in urban areas too, but amplified in the country.

The country is Canada, the nearest city is Toronto — Munro’s familiar territory. We can expect harsh season changes with plenty of snow, though in “Runaway” the fog is utilised to create a faux-supernatural event which aids in character epiphany. Overall we’re told ‘this was the summer of rain and more rain’. I did wonder if it can be raining and foggy at the same time — here is the answer to that. (It’s low humidity where I live, which explains why I’ve never seen heavy rain and fog at the same time.)

The character of Clark is connected to the rain:

But they talked about [their extortion plan] the next day, and the next and the next. He sometimes got notions like this that were not practicable, which might even be illegal. He talked about them with growing excitement and then—she wasn’t sure why—he dropped them. If the rain had stopped, if this had turned into something like a normal summer, he might have let this idea go the way of the others. But that had not happened…

Clark is like the rain in that he is relentless. He also reminds Carla of the rain because in her eyes he is being unusually relentless. He drops mad ideas, but not this one. But I don’t believe the reader is meant to see this episode as unusual — this is Carla’s new normal. We know this by the end of the story.

Plot wise, the rain also prevents Carla and Clark from earning money in their horse business. It also contrasts with sunny, laidback Greece, where Mrs Jamieson has just come from. Mrs Jamieson lives in a different world (even when she’s home in Canada).



For my purposes, the main character of “Runaway” is Carla. But you could equally argue that this story stars Mrs Jamieson equally, because both Carla and Jamieson learn something. They both undergo a character arc.

Carla’s psychological shortcoming: She is naive, unable to stand up for what she knows to be right in her marriage, is isolated from her family (and effective orphan).

She also has a clear moral shortcoming: She is playing along with Clark’s plan to extort money from a recently widowed neighbour, and to tarnish the reputation of a dead man.

Munro encourages us to dislike Carla very much. Then we see a complete turn-around once Carla gets to Mrs Jamieson’s house. She’s either had a spontaneous change of heart, or always planned to spin a different story, casting her own husband in the bad light, but in any case, Carla is dangerously flaky. She’s not just dangerous to herself, but to those around her.

We can’t speak of Carla without mention of the goat. For storytelling purposes (though not in any sort of fantasy way), the goat is the spirit animal of Carla. They are linked visually by the ‘dandelion’ descriptor — Carla’s hair looks like a dandelion, because of the strands too short to fit into her braid. Later, the goat turns up  and ‘transformed itself into soemthing spiky and radiant. First a live dandelion ball, tumbling forward…’ Then of course there is the running away from a violent man aspect, and their mutual return.


Surface desire: Carla wants money, because she and her husband are lacking funds to live. They’re not finding it easy to muster up coinage for the laundromat, instead using musty towels.

Deeper desire: Carla wants to hide in the security of her existing marriage, even though that means much sacrifice on her part, with her husband’s volatile nature having a direct influence on the amount of custom they can expect, among other things.


Alice Munro introduces the opponent as a mystery in the opening paragraph. We wonder who Mrs Jamieson is and why Carla is so interested in her. The existing corpus of narrative may lead us toward the conjecture that Mrs Jamieson has been sexually involved with Carla’s husband. I think Munro may intend this, because she focuses on Mrs Jamieson’s physical description:

Carla got a glimpse of a tanned arm bare to the shoulder, hair bleached a lighter colour than it had been before, more white now than silver blonde

But if we think that, Munro will soon subvert those expectations. Mrs Jamieson is an example of the most humane type of opposition: Like a parent in a children’s book, she does want what’s best for Carla. But because Carla wants something different, that casts Mrs Jamieson as an opponent.

In opposition to Carla’s desire, Mrs Jamieson wants Carla to leave her husband. But more selfishly, she probably wants to feel responsible for someone else and immerse herself for a little while in someone else’s problems, helping Carla to ‘fix’ them, as displacement activity after losing her own husband.

In some ways, Carla and Mrs Jamieson are living in parallel — literally side by side. But they are revealed to be the inverse of each other. Young/wise, wealthy/poor, uneducated/educated. Importantly for this plot, one has just lost her husband — the other fights to keep hers, no matter what.

Carla’s husband Clark is an interesting romantic opponent because of his duality: He is friendly with people at first then turns on a dime. We will see this in action during the Battle with Mrs Jamieson (when the goat reappears), but Munro gives us some vignettes which describe his character beautifully — Clark in the pharmacy, Clark alienating clients, Clark almost scalding a child with coffee which he then denies.


Carla and Clark, though mostly Clark, concoct a fantasy plan. They will extract money from Mrs Jamieson by saying her semi-famous dead husband was sexually inappropriate with Carla. At first I was a little wary of this storyline. I’m absolutely done with stories about women who ‘cry rape’ for personal gain. I’m done with Gone Girl stories, in other words. They contribute to a mainstream, real-life narrative (false) in which people really do think women lie about rape on a regular basis. But Alice Munro — of course — has a far more nuanced understanding of human nature. Carla is playing with a kind of rape fantasy, and it’s the husband who picks this up and runs with it. This does actually accord with what tends to happen in the few real-life instances of false rape accusations — about half of the total of false rape accusations are lodged on behalf of a woman, not by the woman herself.

I’ve noticed that for storytelling purposes, an imagined or fantasy plan is as effective as an actual plan, because the reader doesn’t know at first that it’s nothing but fantasy, so the fantasy plan still works to propel the action along.


Carla gets her Battle, but it doesn’t look like a fight — Carla’s big struggleground is sitting in Mrs Jamieson’s house playing at posh ladies, probably turning over in her head whether she should leave Clark or not. I believe she means to leave Clark at the time.

The clear Battle Scene (the scene that looks like a Battle) is not between Carla and another character but between Clark and Mrs Jamieson. This feels very true to Carla’s character — Carla is staying with Clark because she knows he’s always going to fight her big struggles for her, whether those big struggles are worth fighting or not.


It’s not until Carla leaves Mrs Jamieson’s house she realises she can’t leave Clark. But the reader is kept out of Carla’s head for that little epiphany. Instead we learn of this decision at the same time Mrs Jamieson learns it. By this stage of the story, our sympathies are clearly with Mrs Jamieson. We know far more than she does about the whole situation as Munro has kept us in audience superior position, starting off with Clark and Carla, and only later switching to close third person on Mrs Jamieson as she goes to sleep on the couch and is rudely awakened by Clark.

It can be a real writing challenge, depicting the Self-Revelation phase in a short story. The writer doesn’t have much room to lead up to it, and it can feel contrived when a character suddenly realises something without much in the way of preamble. In “Runaway” Alice Munro gets around the ‘suddenness’ of Mrs Jamieson’s anagnorisis: that she has been too heavily involved in Carla’s life, by showing the reader the note that she left for Carla afterwards. Again, this works for the character because Mrs Jamieson is a writerly, academic type with sufficient life experience to be able to craft an apology.

Carla’s epiphany is more brutal, and is to do with Clark, not Mrs Jamieson. She realises Clark may have killed her beloved goat. Yet for Carla this doesn’t lead to change. She is stuck now. Earlier we’ve had a brief snippet of conversation between Carla and her mother. When she left her natal home it was in search of a life ‘more authentic’ than the suburban idyll she learned to despise. Alice Munro seems to be questioning what it means to lead an ‘authentic’ life. Is an authentic life one full of misery?

I don’t want to give the impression that Mrs Jamieson’s epiphany is complete whereas Carla’s is not. Each woman’s revelation is incomplete in its own way. Mrs Jamieson thinks she’s discovered something about herself, but remains blind to Carla’s real situation. She mistakenly attributes the appearance of the goat to Clark being not so bad after all — she thinks she was scared and uncomfortable mainly due to the time of night and her vulnerability, standing there in her long t-shirt. When he touches her shoulder, all is forgiven. Really, Mrs Jamieson should be more worried about Carla than she was even before. But Mrs Jamieson is probably happy to have the young woman nearby, as she has a bit of a crush on her (though she has rejected that terminology, feeling it’s not sexual).


The reader can extrapolate that if Carla hasn’t taken the opportunity to leave Clark now, she likely never will. Especially after she learns he may have killed her goat. Notice that Carla and Clark both have names beginning with the same letter. This binds them together in our minds.

Carla no longer cleans for Mrs Jamieson, so we can expect the two women to live side by side but separately from this point forward. When written in close first person from Carla’s point of view, Mrs Jamieson is referred to by her last name, which sets her apart from Carla.

Like Annie Proulx, and most famously Joseph Conrad, Alice Munro makes use of ‘delayed decoding’, in which the reader doesn’t understand the full extent of the situation until after reading the entire story. This is why short stories need to be read twice.

[Delayed decoding serves] mainly to put the reader in the position of being an immediate witness in each step of the process whereby the semantic gap between the sensations aroused in the individual by an object or event, and their actual cause or meaning, was closed in their consciousness. This technique is based on the pretence that the reader’s understanding is limited to the consciousness of the fictional observer.

Literary Lexicon

In other words, delayed decoding mirrors the way in which readers may be aware of things whose causes we have yet to discover. I believe the term ‘delayed decoding’ is another word for ‘foreshadowing’, though ‘foreshadowing’ refers to writer technique, whereas ‘delayed decoding’ focuses on the experience of the reader. I think it’s best described as ‘extreme foreshadowing’ — an entire paragraph or scene may not make sense on first reading. We’re not talking about brief mentions of guns here.

On second reading of “Runaway” it’s clear to me that Clark is abusing the animals. He neglects the boarding horses, but is taking his frustration out on the goat, who in Carla’s dream has a hurt leg. But is the dream based on fear and on reality? When we first read it, it’s just a dream. (In short stories especially, dreams are never ‘just dreams’.) We are given another clue to the abuse when the goat likes Clark at first then attaches itself to Carla, henceforth less skittish. By the time Carla wonders if Clark has killed the goat, we know it to be true.

We can also safely extrapolate that Clark will abuse Carla, and if not Carla, their future kids. That’s if Clark does not kill Carla first, as he has killed her spirit animal, the goat. For now, Carla will live on eggshells. Or as Munro writes it:

It was as if she had a murderous needle somewhere in her lungs, and by breathing carefully, she could avoid feeling it. But every once in a while she had to take a deep breath, and it was still there.

In the final scene, Munro makes use of a technique I’ve heard described as side-shadowing. In one version of the ending, Carla finds the skeleton of the dead goat and visits it as if she visits a grave.

Or perhaps not. Nothing there.

Other things could have happened. He could have chased Flora away. Or tied her in the back of the truck and driven some distance and set her loose. Taken her back to the place they’d got her from.

Another short story making use of this technique, in which the reader is given a variety of possible scenarios and invited to pick the most likely, is “The Wrysons” by John Cheever.

In The Pit by Annie Proulx

snow cabin

“In the Pit” is a short story by Annie Proulx, included in the Heart Songs collection. “In the Pit” is a good example of a story with no Anagnorisis for the main character. If anyone has a revelation, it’s the reader. Character arcs are not compulsory. In real life as in fiction, sometimes people simply don’t learn and they don’t change. They go their whole lives with little understanding of themselves and others. A TV series with an unchanging main character is Mad Men. Don Draper, also with the ghost of a problematic childhood, is unable to move past his backstory. Season after season he doesn’t change while around him the world changes a lot. This juxtaposition is the point of interest. Blue is a kind of Don Draper character, but from rural New England.


Like Snipe [in the story “Heart Songs”], the outsider protagonist of “In the Pit” causes emotional pain through his misreading of others’ intentions.

During a winter visit back east, Blue goes to his family’s Vermont summer camp, for the first time in years, to inspect the damage done by vandals. Once there he finds some of the furnishings buried in a deep snow in a pit at the base of a small cliff behind the house. Dreaming of coming to the camp in the summer with his wife and child, he reestablishes contact with Mr. Fitzroy, a dairy farmer who has been kind to Blue as a child. Fitzroy’s wife has died; his house has burned down; and he has turned to drink while living in the former milk room on his farm. He does not remember Blue, but he welcomes him kindly and introduces him to Gilbert, a former convict to whom he has given shelter because, Fitzroy says, “I don’t hold the past against nobody.”

Blue is less tolerant. After seeing what looks like his family’s old toaster in Fitzroy’s quarters, he accuses Gilbert of vandalizing the camp and takes the toaster by force. The next day he looks in the pit again and sees his family’s toaster. The reader is left with the impression that this discovery has embarrassed Blue and probably dampened his plans to vacation at the cabin, but it has contributed little to his understanding of his own character.

Understanding Annie Proulx by Karen Lane Rood

In plot of “In the Pit” is a little similar to that old yarn whereby a man on public transport sits face to face with a dangerous-looking character. The dangerous-looking character defiantly takes the man’s cigarettes, then another, then another. The viewpoint man also keeps smoking from this box, and the big reveal at the end — when we’re expecting a Battle — is that it’s the viewpoint man who is mistaken — he’s been smoking the cigarettes of this menacing guy, who’s obviously not as menacing as he looks, otherwise he would’ve said something.

I don’t know if it’s a Jeffrey Archer original, but Archer wrote this story and called it “Broken Routine”. The story is collected in A Quiver of Arrows.

Annie Proulx does the story far better. The message here isn’t the simplistic: “Be careful how you judge people, because it might be you who’s wrong,” but a far more subtle portrait of a man’s psychology as he visits his childhood arena.


Like the others in this collection, newcomers are pitted against old. This conflict is symbolised not only by the people themselves but by a rich symbol web, first, in the opening with junk mail:

When the modern world intrudes into Chopping County, it does so via junk-mail coming through the post, as in the story “In the Pit”, where “Papers, magazines, letters, bills, offers to develop her film in twenty-four hours or insure her credit cards against loss, fliers and folders” provide the connection between consumerist society and the quiet lives in rural communities.

Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News: A Reader’s Guide by Aliki Varvogli

The season is winter, with thick snow covering objects in and around the yard. The snow covers objects like Blue has buried his memories.


Apart from photographs of his wife and adopted daughter, Blue brings his mother flowers called ‘gentian’.

Gentian is an herb. The root of the plant and, less commonly, the bark are used to make medicine. Gentian is used for digestion problems such as loss of appetite, fullness, intestinal gas, diarrhea, gastritis, heartburn, and vomiting.

Though it’s not said, perhaps Blue was named Blue because it’s his mother’s favourite colour. The camp is decorated with accents of blue, so that seems likely. The description I pulled up on the Internet isn’t exactly romantic, but it’s the first to come up. The flowers are already past it by the time he gives them to his mother. This sets the tone of the story.


The holes Blue makes ‘in the depths of the snow were a deep, unearthly blue’.

I’m not entirely clear about the symbolic significance of the blue, except it may contrast against the flame of Gilbert, sitting by the fire. Fitzroy’s house burned down — everything associated with Fitzroy is the complementary colour of Blue. This is supposed to cast them as opposites in the reader’s mind, perhaps.



Blue has not been well-parented. That much is clear from the beginning. His mother drives by at the father’s funeral, is not interested in her own son, nor who he’s married. She’s fed Blue nothing but corn syrup growing up, to the point where he needs to make a complete U-turn in his diet after leaving home, losing some of the weight. He’s bought a toupee to sort of paper over his deficiencies.

We learn the most about Blue’s shortcomings from the brief conversations he has with his wife. That is, she’s pushing him for more and he’s not giving it. It’s clear Blue wants to keep his childhood home separate from his wife and child, playing the big man now. But until he opens up about it, his wife will never fully understand him.

I do wonder a little about Blue’s ghost. What has he done in the past? Fitzroy seems to reassure him later in the story, “I don’t hold the past against nobody.” When we see what Blue does regarding the toaster, perhaps Blue has done some pretty awful things himself. We get just an overview of that at the beginning. We’re also told he’s been to Assertiveness Training. (He seems to make use of those skills when retrieving his toaster, using a firm voice.)


Inciting incident: the sheriff has written to his mother to say the summer camp house has been broken into and vandalised. Blue wants to return to that long-forgotten place and get the mess sorted out.

As the story progresses, Blue thinks he’d like to bring his wife and child to this childhood summer camp. That’s what he thinks he wants, anyway, so he sets about cleaning it up with that in mind. But this desire wanes over the course of the story as he’s reminded of long-ago memories. I get all this from one small detail — Grace’s voice on the phone, and her demanding to know what kind of camp it is makes him not want to bring her up here. She seems to think it’s like a scout camp, and perhaps Blue’s afraid she’ll only be disappointed. I suspect he’s told his wife very little about his past.


Blue’s mother is at first glance his enduring opposition, but in this particular story she doesn’t stand in his way. So she’s not really the opponent of this particular narrative. For story purposes she’s asking him what he wants to go up there for, so she’s functioning as more of an ally, in which another character interrogates the main character, allowing some insight for the audience into the main character’s motivations.

The mother is described in the opening sentence as ‘looking like Charles Laughton in a flowered wrapper’. This works great if you know who film actor Charles Laughton is.

Charles Laughton

This is a story with an imaginary opponent standing in for a character whose main opponent is himself. The imaginary opponent is Fitzroy’s room mate, fresh out of prison. For storytelling purposes, an imaginary opponent is as good as a real one.


Blue plans to tidy up the camp in preparation for getting it liveable again. He’s not sure what comes after that — his mother wants him to see about putting it on the market.


The On-the-page Battle scene is between Blue and Fitzroy as Blue pushes past Fitzroy to retrieve the toaster.

Big picture: The big struggle is between Blue’s present self and his past. He thinks he’s left his past behind to the point where he can bring his own young family up here, but…


…turns out he can’t. The memories are too much, and the new reality too grim. But this is the reader’s revelation, not his.

Blue himself is not clear about why.

This short story contains many food references — Proulx doesn’t often dwell on those. The food is the food of poor, rural America. Even treat food is bad food because they haven’t tasted better. Blue buys up all the food he thinks he’d like to eat then realises he doesn’t really want it. This is a kind of displaced anagnorisis. He realises he doesn’t want the food he bought in, but what he doesn’t want is much larger than that. A displaced anagnorisis is a good proxy for when a character never gets to know themselves.

Dinty Moore beef stew

An earlier recollection, in which Blue cries about a cheese sandwich ‘as though it was the last one in the world’ clues us in on Blue’s failure to understand himself. He wasn’t crying for the cheese sandwich, but for the fact he was yelled at, and he caused his parents to yell at each other by burning the sandwich in the toaster.

Then the storm comes — pathetic fallacy — when the storm clears and Blue sees the camp is sound (except for an imaginary dripping) this affords Blue sufficient clarity to clear out, job done.

Even in stories where characters don’t have a anagnorisis, there will probably still be a reveal. The reveal here is that Blue is wrong about the theft. No one broke in and took the toaster, but this is plot related, not character related.


The tragedy: although Blue realises he’s wrong about the toaster, he doesn’t take that line of thought any further. He doesn’t think maybe he’s wrong about other things, too, like how his wife needs to understand where he comes from, which will involve more information about his mother.

He’ll probably be too ashamed to come back. Then again, he might visit Fitzroy to return the toaster and ask if he really is able to forgive.

The Juniper Tree Fairytale

The Juniper Tree Maurice Sendak

“The Juniper Tree”, as told by the Grimm Brothers,  is a horrible tale. I don’t have a problem with gruesome. I can deal with fairytale cannibalism. The murder of the boy is comical rather than realistic and he comes back to life anyhow. No, “The Juniper Tree” is horrible for its symbolic annihilation of the mother. This is a tale written by men, for men, to reassure men of their dominance within the family hierarchy. Though it draws directly on a long history of tales in which children are fed to parents, the Grimm version inserts an extra level of female erasure.

This goes a long, long way back in history. “The Juniper Tree” is a newer take on a couple of ancient Greek stories. Medea took revenge on her husband by stewing their children. Season that story with the tale of Philomel, who transformed into a bird to sing about being raped by her brother-in-law. So her sister chops up the kids to feed to rapist dad. Because what did medieval humans use as stories? Europeans were well-schooled in the myths of Ancient Greece. It’s natural that these myths became basis for what we now call fairytale.

The Pennywinkle ghost story from the Ozarks is a ghost story riff on “The Juniper Tree”.


This is the story of a family and a commentary on family structure. But the hero is the son/father who — for symbolic purposes — are one and the same. Literally. I mean, the father eats the son, incorporating him into himself. The hero is ‘the male of the family’.


Though this is a modern interpretation, the shortcoming of the father is that the woman and daughter run the household. The women may be indentured — unsupported even if they do want to go out into the world and work outside the kitchen — but since women do work in the kitchens, women are also in charge of what the family eats. This gives women some power, and must therefore lead to some dark fears among men. Food, of course, symbolises something bigger: nurturing. The women have to do all the child-rearing, but they also have the privilege of doing all the child-rearing.

The great shortcoming of the father: He doesn’t get to control what goes on at home. He goes out to work. While he’s away, the women could get up to all sorts. And they do. Oh, how they do.


The father wants a more secure role within the family. He wants to know he is the father of the children; he wants to be involved in nurturing (and controlling) them.


The women. Women in general, symbolised by the second wife and the mean daughter who like nothing better than to kill boys and feed them to men.


It is the bird version of the son/father who has the plan to dispose of the female characters altogether. He collects a variety of things by singing his truth in the song. Then he takes them to the father. This way, the father will know he’s still alive.


The bird drops the millstone onto the mother’s head and kills her.


The father and Marlene learn what a wicked woman Marlene’s mother is, and so they are pleased when she is killed in an act of retributive justice.

For me, the revelation is that a happy ending in the culture of this story means killing off the woman (the second one), who is too powerful in her femininity to bear.


Father, little brother and Marlene are happy — well, at least until the son inherits the entire house in a culture of primogeniture which excludes women and girls. And then who knows. I suspect the father will eventually dispose of Marlene, too, when she hits adolescence and becomes a reproductive threat.


“The Juniper Tree” is a fairy modern tale (though as shown above, its inspirations are ancient). But in the medieval era, people used herbal remedies which have since been lost to us. Some of these were surprisingly effective (experimental medicine wasn’t against any law, so I guess that helped move things along). For instance, willow bark was given to patients with fever — much later, this lead directly to the invention of aspirin. And juniper was used to promote contractions during birth. I do wonder if the people who told early versions of The Juniper Tree knew of the connection between birth and juniper as medication. For a modern audience, there’s nothing feminine about juniper — but was this story an attempt to redistribute (re-)birthing to men?

Other writers have made the most of the link between femininity and the juniper tree. Monica Furlong named her girl hero ‘Juniper’ in her Wise Child series, which is one of those books with a cult following and which should be widely known, but which is sadly out of print.

juniper berries
Juniper Berries


Usually in fairytales:

Imagery and description: there is no imagery in fairy tales apart from the most obvious. As white as snow, as red as blood: that’s about it. Nor is there any close description of the natural world or of individuals. A forest is deep, the princess is beautiful, her hair is golden; there’s no need to say more. When what you want to know is what happens next, beautiful descriptive wordplay can only irritate.

Philip Pullman

But “The Juniper Tree” is unlike other tales anthologised by the Grimm brothers. The imagery is very clear, probably because it was sent to the Grimm brothers by Achm von Arnim after being written down by Philipp Otto Runge. It is already, therefore, more of a literary fairytale than those which came from the oral tradition. Philip Pullman doesn’t seem to share my own distaste for the tale:

In [“The Juniper Tree”] however, there is a passage that successfully combines beautiful description with the relation of events in such a way that one would not work without the other. […] the passage I mean comes after the wife has made her wish for a child as red as blood and as white as snow. It links her pregnancy with the passing seasons:

One month went by, and the snow vanished.
Two months went by, and the world turned green.
Three months went by, and flowers bloomed out of the earth.
Four months went by, and all the twigs on all the trees in the forest grew stronger and pressed themselves together, and the birds sang so loud that the woods resounded, and the blossom fell from the trees.
Five months went by, and the woman stood under the juniper tree. It smelled so sweet that her heart leaped in her breast, and she fell to her knees with joy.
Six months went by, and the fruit grew firm and heavy, and the woman fell still.
When seven months had gone by, she plucked the juniper berries and ate so many that she felt sick and sorrowful.
After the eighth month had gone, she called her husband and said to him, weeping, ‘If I die, bury me under the juniper tree.’

This is wonderful, but it’s wonderful in a curious way: there’s little any teller of this tale can do to improve it. It has to be rendered exactly as it is here, or at least the different months have to be given equally different characteristics, and carefully linked in equally meaningful ways with the growth of the child in his mother’s womb, and that growth with the juniper tree that will be instrumental in his later resurrection.

However, that is a great and rare exception. In most of these tales, just as the characters are flat, description is absent. In the later editions, it is true, Wilhelm’s telling became a little more florid and inventive, but the real interest of the tale continues to be in what happened, and what happened next. The formulas are so common, the lack of interest in the particularity of things so widespread, that it comes as a real shock to read a sentence like this in “Jorinda and Joringel”:

It was a lovely evening; the sun shone warmly on the tree trunks against the dark green of the deep woods, and turtledoves cooed mournfully in the old beech trees.

Suddenly that story stops sounding like a fairy tale and begins to sound like something composed in a literary way by a Romantic writer such as Novalis orJean Paul. The serene, anonymous relation of events has given way, for the space of a sentence, to an individual sensibility: a single mind has felt this impression of nature, has seen these details in the mind’s eye and written them down. A writer’s command of imagery and gift for description is one of the things that make him or her unique, but fairy tales don’t come whole and unaltered from the minds of individual writers, after all; uniqueness and originality are of no interest to them.

Philip Pullman

There’s another rare example of a fairy tale which has such specific description that the characters are individualised, and that is Baba Yaga.