The Years of My Birth by Louise Erdrich

“The Years Of My Birth” (2011) is a short story by Louise Erdrich.

Tommy Orange joined Deborah Treisman to read and discuss “The Years of My Birth,” by Louise Erdrich, which appeared in a 2011 issue of the New Yorker magazine.

The author has said that her novels come from her short stories. “The Years Of My Birth” led to the novel The Round House. Despite the connection and clear evolution, the two are best considered separate works. However, in the New Yorker discussion it’s clear Treisman and Orange have read both. They know a few things which can’t be learned from the story itself, for instance the real name of Tuffy (Linda) which is hinted at but not explicit in the short story. If you’ve read the book, your reading of the short story will be influenced by what you learned in that.

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Women and Shoplifting in Fiction

1960s Christmas shopping

Watch enough TV and you’ll likely draw the conclusion that women, especially housewives with significant personal problems commonly relieve psychological pain by shoplifting. It’s rare to find men shoplifting for the buzz. Also in fiction, teenage girls shoplift as a hazing ritual, and to own prized items (mostly body adornment items) they couldn’t otherwise afford.

How does this compare to real life stats on shoplifters? Shoplifting is not gendered in the way of fictional tropes. There’s a strong link between shoplifting, anxiety and addiction. When it comes to kleptomania, two thirds are women. For a similar buzz. men are more likely to turn to gambling than shoplifting. Both gambling and shoplifting are impulse control disorders.

Nor is shoplifting a crime of young people. However, most adults who shoplift probably started in their teens.

gilmore girls humour
from Gilmore girls

Real life examples of shoplifting aside, I’ll take a closer look at how women shoplifting is used in popular storytelling to advance the plot, or to convey something to the audience about character. In all three examples below, the women and girls are shoplifting body adornment items. Shoplifting scenes in which characters steal necessary items in order to survive are a different thing entirely. That kind of shoplifting exists at a different spot on the morality spectrum.

Shoplifting aside, shopping itself is a heavily gendered activity. Men spend just as much money as women do in shops, but because the job of shopping (groceries, clothing etc.) is the job of the person running the household, it is mostly women we associate with shopping. Men are doing less shopping work, but when they do shop, they buy big, expensive items (computers, cars etc.)

The Penguin Ronald Searle By Ronald Searle (published by Penguin Books Ltd, London 1960) genuine reductions
The Penguin Ronald Searle By Ronald Searle (published by Penguin Books Ltd, London 1960). Would this cartoon work if the characters were masculo-coded?

CASE STUDY ONE: MARIE IN BREAKING BAD

In the clip below, we learn that Hank’s wife Marie is a shoplifter. She impulse steals a pair of sparkly purple shoes. (Marie is strongly associated with the colour purple throughout the show.)

Later, Marie will shoplift a princess crown for Skyler’s new baby, then a spoon from an open home. Marie is very clearly trying out a new identity.

One problem experienced by the writers of Breaking Bad: An astonishingly small cast of characters. Take almost any other series running the same number of seasons and you’ll find the writers have many more characters whose arcs they can explore. I feel that Marie’s strange shoplifting arc was a strange and unnecessary addition, when the writers already faced a woman problem.

That said, Marie’s shoplifting subplot does mirror the ‘other self’ of Walter White. Both Walt and Marie are objectively good at being a spouse. They both feel confined by the house (or their spouse). Hank is a cranky husband who requires Marie to walk on egg-shells around him. This slightly menacing aspect of Hank is emphasised during Marie’s shoplifting scene, in which Marie calls Hank as Hank barks instructions at some men he and his partner have just arrested.

Marie’s anxiety about Walt Junior’s smoking of pot comes across as busy-body interference, and juxtaposes against Hank’s drug bust for its snigger-inducing inconsequence. “What, you want me to tell him about marijuana overdoses?” Hank says dismissively before pacifying his wife.

It is fitting that Marie shoplifts impractical but beautiful high heels, leaving behind her flat, sensible work shoes. The adornments of women are commonly positioned as frivolous (at best) and actively deceptive (at worst).

CASE STUDY TWO: RUTH IN SIX FEET UNDER

In “The Eye Inside” episode of Six Feet Under (Season Three, 2013) Ruth Fisher meets Bettina, who is helping Ruth’s hippie sister Sarah to detox from a Vicodin addiction. Suddenly free from the strictures of ladyfriend and mother, Ruth is now in a world entirely different from her usual one. She even tells Bettina she has never been brave enough to sit in a hammock before.

While the sister remains tied up in bed to scream and detox in “peace” (a moment of dark humour), Bettina accompanies Ruth shopping and tries to persuade Ruth to update her wardrobe. Ruth is initially shocked to witness Bettina yank the price off a branded scarf and tuck it discreetly into her handbag.

Bettina explains to Ruth that the wonderful advantage of turning into a middle aged (white) woman is that you are now completely invisible, including invisible to law enforcement. This follows on from the juxtaposition of Sarah explaining in pathetically unfeminist terms that she got hooked on Vicodin because of the tragedy of losing her youth and beauty. Bettina has decided to embrace the advantages of invisibility.

Initially shocked, by the end of the shopping expedition, Bettina has successfully persuaded Ruth to join her in crime. Together, Bettina and Ruth steal Ruth a red lipstick.

From Woman Magazine, 19 March 1956
From Woman Magazine, 19 March 1956

The lipstick is called ‘Flirtation’ and, very similar to the purple, sparkly shoes stolen by Marie in Breaking Bad, is a symbol of youthful feminine sexuality. These middle aged women are symbolically ‘stealing’ back some of their youthful vibrance. They steal because they are invisible, but they steal the very items which, we deduce, aim to make them visible again.

In Six Feet Under, the death at the beginning of each episode will link to the character growth in one or more of the Fishers (and their extended families). In “The Eye Inside”, Ruth’s shoplifting arc opens with the death of Callie Renee Morimer, who flees a group of jeering young men calling to her as she walks alone in the dark. The young men turn out to be a group of joking friends, but Callie is struck down by a speeding vehicle. In their eulogy, the young men reveal they have never considered before that a friend, so brave in other ways, could also be so scared of men in the dark. This 2003 episode preceded the #metoo movement. This would have been a revelation to much of the audience, conveying a feminist message akin to Bettina’s.

The dead girl of this episode was unpleasantly invisible in the darkness, and also completely invisible; her invisibility led directly to her death. As Bettina successfully convinces Ruth, invisibility is useful, but also a kind of death.

Meanwhile, in a thematically mirrored plot involving David and Keith, David worries about seeming too visibly gay in front of straight couples. 

CASE STUDY THREE: THIRTEEN

In the film Thirteen (2003),Tracy Freeland becomes first a thief, then a shoplifter. This is a classic shoplifting scene involving young teenage girls. There is a hazing aspect to it. Tracy is literally buying popular and beautiful new friends, impressing them with her daring.

As in the two examples above, Tracy, Evie Zamora and Evie’s other friends are most interested in shoplifting items which will adorn their bodies and transform them into the sexy older women they aspire to be.

Teenage girls stealing clothes and fashion items in TV shows is standard fare. I’m sure this is partly why I was followed around stores as a teenage girl myself. Back in the 90s, shop assistants regularly barged in on you while you were trying on clothes in cubicles. (The Glassons at Riccarton Mall in Christchurch was terrible for that.) At least that particular awful rite of passage seems to have come to an end.

The character of Hanna in Pretty Little Liars is presented as a cool, calm, confident trickster when she shoplifts this pair of sunglasses, accomplished partly by charming a boy with less beauty privilege at the sunglasses counter.
This scene from Stranger Things is not dissimilar. Eleven literally has supernatural powers on her side. (Hanna has beauty and white privilege.)
Buffy and Faith in Buffy the Vampire Slayer “Want, take have”, says Faith, a line very similar to one in a children’s picture book: Wolf Comes To Town. This scene overturns the cliche of girls stealing clothes and makeup, but is a Riot Girl form of feminism in which girls just take what they want, macho style.
This might as well be a contemporary update of Eve daring Adam to steal the apple.
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Movement Through Picture Books

Western picture books are read from left to right. This affects the layout of a page, and the direction of character movement. Generally, characters also move through a picture book from left to right. When embarking upon a journey they will look to the right.

Susan Jeffers (1942-2020 USA)

When looking out a window, the window will often encourage readers to look to the right as well.

From ‘The wise robin’ by Noel Barr, illustrated by PB Hickling. Ladybird, fifth edition, 1952

When characters come up against a hurdle, in an unmarked scene, that hurdle will be positioned to the right.

Below, Wombat from Diary of a Wombat isn’t getting what she wants (carrots). But she is determined to keep trying for them until she gets what she wants. Therefore, the door is positioned to her right.

Diary of a Wombat desire for carrots

Illustrators can deliberately subvert this expectation. In Outside Over There, the mother and the dog are paying no attention to Ida. Ida is off on her own adventure. At first, Ida is also looking left, not watching out for what crops up from the right. (ie. the goblins who switch her little sister.) But as she gets involved in the fantasy adventure she faces right.

The inverse rules of directionality apply to books read from right to left, as in Japan.

Header illustration: From ‘The walls came tumbling down’ by Dave Hill, illustrated by Jim Roberts and Art Kirchoff. Concordia, Arch Books 1967, I’ll help you hide.

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Slap Happy Larry Stories

I put this analysis into practice when writing my own short stories.

Lemon Girl: A movie-length novella by Slap Happy Larry. Everyone is someone else's little psycho.

Illustrations Of Ominous Faces In Shadow

Photographers understand that faces can change significantly depending on how they are lit. Illustrators also know this. Faces obscured are ominous. Below are examples of ominous faces making use of shadow.

NACHTMERRIE OVER NEDERLAND (1945) L.J. Jordaan
NACHTMERRIE OVER NEDERLAND (1945) L.J. Jordaan
THE PSALMS FOR MODERN LIFE (1933) Arthur Wragg, man in front of sexual health clinic, 'Absolute Secrecy'
THE PSALMS FOR MODERN LIFE (1933) Arthur Wragg, man in front of sexual health clinic, ‘Absolute Secrecy’
Poster Art 1932 Fantomas, illustrator not found, ominous faces in shadow
Poster Art 1932 Fantomas, illustrator not found
When the top half of a face is in shadow, it can mimic the look of wearing a bandit mask. The villain in this image also has a green tinge to his skin, another marker of ‘evil’. (See: Why are witches green?)
Here’s another example of a scary face in shadow, though in this case the villain really is wearing a mask.
The face lit up as if through open blinds has a specifically detective story feel about it.
Robert Maguire (1921 - 2005) 1959 book cover illustration for 'Negative Of A Nude' by Charles E. Fritch, although this art was used for several other titles too
Robert Maguire (1921 – 2005) 1959 book cover illustration for ‘Negative Of A Nude’ by Charles E. Fritch, although this art was used for several other titles too

In children’s books, shadows aren’t utilised as often, apart from grounding shadows an unobtrusive indications of light-source. That’s because most picture books aren’t meant to be scary. However, the picture books of Chris Van Allsburg are a notable exception. Starting out as a sculptor, Van Allsburg makes heavy use of shadows, to the point where his shadows carry meaning.

Chris Van Allsburg, ‘The Hooded Congregation’, ”Ghosts” by Time-Life Books, 1984.
from The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, meeting the magician face to face
from The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, meeting the magician face to face
Cover by Marcello Dudovich, 1930
Cover by Marcello Dudovich, 1930. This looks like death warmed up.
Photo Magazin July 1953
Photo Magazin July 1953. The shadow across this guy’s face almost looks like a Rorschach test.
Mead Schaeffer (1898 - 1980) ominous face
Mead Schaeffer (1898 – 1980)
Mead Schaeffer (1898 – 1980)
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Writing Activity: Describe Main Street Of A Small Town

Stean Dohanos, Main Street

MAIN STREET FROM “COMING SOON” BY STEVEN MILLHAUSER

On weekends and evenings, whenever he was free, Levinson liked nothing better than to explore the streets of his town. Main Street was always alive, but that wasn’t the only part of town with an energy you could feel. On residential streets, houses displayed new roofs, renovated porches, bigger windows, fancier doors; in outlying neighborhoods, empty tracts of land blossomed with medical buildings, supermarkets, family restaurants. During early visits to the town, he’d seen a field of bramble bushes with a sluggish stream change into a flourishing shopping plaza, where stores shaded by awnings faced a parking lot studded with tree islands and flower beds, and shortly after his move he’d watched, day after day, as a stretch of woods at the west end of town was cut down and transformed into a community of stone-and-shingle houses on smooth streets lined with purple-leaved Norway maples. You could always find something new in this town—something you weren’t expecting. His city friends, skeptics and mockers all, could say what they liked about the small-town doldrums, the backwater blues, but that didn’t prevent them from coming up for the weekend, and even they seemed surprised at the vitality of the place, with its summer crowds, its merry-go-round in the park, its thronged farmers’ market, and, wherever you looked, on curbsides and street corners, in vacant lots and fenced-off fields, men and machines at work: front-end loaders lifting dirt into dump trucks, excavators digging their toothed buckets into the earth, truck-mounted cranes unfolding, rising, stretching higher and higher into the sky.

“Coming Soon”, Steven Millhauser

In the description below, author Nicholas Evans describes a small town first from a long shot point of view then, as the driver (Dan) drives into the town we see it as he would from a car window. The description of a ‘blink and you miss it’ town is not original, but the verb ‘fishboned’ is. By listing the shops, Evans gives us a good idea of the population of this town — their needs, their desires, and then injects a touch of irreverent humour by putting churches and bars into the same category.

HOPE, MONTANA FROM THE LOOP

In the far distance now, Dan saw the town looming. It was the kind of town you could drive through and barely know you’d been there. One straight street, a couple of hundred yards long, fishboned with a few side alleys. At one end stood a rundown motel and at the other a school, and in between you could find a gas station, a grocery, a hardware store, a diner, a laundromat and a taxidermist.

Many of the town’s five hundred or so population lived scattered along the valley and to service their various spiritual needs there were two churches and two bars. There were also two gift shops, which said more about optimism than sound business sense; for although summer tourists often passed through Hope, few chose to longer.

In an attempt to remedy this and to meet demand from the modest but growing band of subdivision newcomers, one of these shops (and by far the better) had last year installed a cappuccino bar.

The Loop, Nicholas Evans

WRITE YOUR OWN

Using imagery from two or more of the images below and write a description of a Main Street.

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The Home Girls by Olga Masters

William Frederick Yeames - For the Poor

“The Home Girls” is a short story by Australian writer Olga Masters (1919 – 1986), and the first story of Masters’ 1982 collection, also called The Home Girls. I’m interested in Olga Masters partly because her fiction wasn’t published until she was in her 50s. Then, when she was published, she won a bunch of awards. The Home Girls won a National Book Council Award in 1983.

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Purple Blooms by Carol Shields

Alain Le Foll, The Very Obliging Flowers, 1968

“Purple Blooms” is a short story by American-born Canadian writer Carol Shields (1935 – 2003), included in the collection Various Miracles (1985).

This short story showcases how different the lyrical short form can be from the novel. For one thing, “Purple Blooms” doesn’t seem to have a typical ending. Look closer, and that’s because the plot is an unusual shape: Cumulative. Another short story with a cumulative plot shape is “The Fifth Story” by Clarice Lispector, though Lispector’s story is more obviously so. In a cumulative story the author keeps circling around a topic, enlarging it with each revisit.

Sometimes, the shape of a lyrical short story echoes its symbol web. In this case, I feel the shape of the story continues the motif of ‘blooming’. The ‘purple bloom’ of the title is a verb as well as a noun; to bloom is to start small and then, well, blossom. That’s how it feels to read a short story shaped in this fashion. This plot shape is especially well-suited to the short form. The shorter the better, probably. Adult readers have limited patience for revisiting something over and over. (In contrast, the cumulative plot shape is far more common in picture books. Young children seem to require repetition; it helps them to learn language and to understand their world.)

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Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg

Jumanji is a 1981 picture book written and illustrated by American storyteller Chris Van Allsburg. You may be familiar with the 1995 film adaptation starring Robin Williams.

Chris Van Allsburg has said that this story started with imagery. He wanted to put unexpected things together, such as a rhino in a living room. He describes the effect on readers as ‘cognitive dissonance’.

Album design and photography by JEB 1977 Urana records
Album design and photography by JEB 1977 Urana records
Joop Polder Tram In The Forest 1970’s
Joop Polder Tram In The Forest 1970’s

Cognitive dissonance: the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change.

Another descriptor for the Jumanji variety of art is Surrealism. Artists have been juxtaposing unfamiliar objects for many years. The Surrealist art movement began around 1920, inspired by Sigmund Freud’s theories of dreams and the unconscious. Freud’s personal favourite Surrealist painter was Spanish painter Salvador Dalí.

Contemporary artists continue to work in Surrealist style. Check out the paintings of Vladimir Kush below, who also places unexpected things togethe, creating a new world:

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Aurora In Art

Aurora are works of art in their own right. Of course artists have been reproducing aurora in paintings and illustration since it was possible. Below are some examples of aurora in art, including various media. It’s interesting to see how the aurora can even be reproduced using woodcut.

Frederic Edwin Church (American), Aurora Borealis, 1865, 56x83, 1911.4.1, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Frederic Edwin Church (American), Aurora Borealis, 1865, 56×83, 1911.4.1, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Edward Whymper (British mountaineer and illustrator, London, 1840 - Chamonix, 1911), Aurora Borealis, color woodcut, with watercolor
Edward Whymper (British mountaineer and illustrator, London, 1840 – Chamonix, 1911), Aurora Borealis, color woodcut, with watercolor
Northern Lights by Meyers Konv-Lexicon, 1870
Northern Lights by Meyers Konv-Lexicon, 1870

'Aurora Borealis' Woodcut print by Finnish artist Aukusti Tuhko. 1937
‘Aurora Borealis’ Woodcut print by Finnish artist Aukusti Tuhko. 1937
Authors & illustrators Edgar Parin d'Aulaire, Ingri Parin d'Aulaire, 1972
Authors & illustrators Edgar Parin d’Aulaire, Ingri Parin d’Aulaire, 1972
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Variations On Once Upon A Time

Eloise Wilkin time

When creating a fairytale world, certain language marks the tale as timeless.

Fairytales begin with a certain phrase. This phrase sets the tone and tells the reader: “This is an old and distant story tied to modern times only thinly.”

It also tells the reader that “This could be anywhere. Its heroes could be anyone. This hero could be you.”

FAIRYTALE BEGINNINGS IN VARIOUS LANGUAGES

Some languages e.g. Japanese say ‘A long time ago…’ (Mukashi, mukashi…)

There once was a king/queen/princess…

It was once…

German: Es war einmal… (Once upon a time)

Armenian: There was and there was not…

Korean: Once, in the old days, when tigers smoked…

Czech: Beyond seven mountain ranges, beyond seven rivers…

Lithuiana/Persian/Thai etc: Once upon a time, a long long time ago…

VARIATIONS ON ONCE UPON A TIME

Some stories simply start with the word ‘Once’. This is enough to invoke the ‘Once upon a time’ tone.

Other stories utilise “Once Upon A [X]”

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Header illustration by Eloise Wilkin