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.
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.'”
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.
“Where The Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak is the picture book that changed picture books forever.
The picture book began to be understood, after Maurice Sendak, as something extraordinary – a fusion of images and limited vocabulary which authors such as Julia Donaldson, Lauren Child, Alan and Janet Ahlberg, Emily Gravett and more have turned into a post-modern art form.
When I started reading books about picture books the first thing I noticed was how much the books of Maurice Sendak are referenced as primary sources, especially Where The Wild Things Are. Handy hint: If you’re thinking of reading academic literature in a bid to understand children’s books, have the Sendak oeuvre at your side. (Also Rosie’s Walk, the picturebooks of Anthony Browne and Chris van Allsburg.)
I find it ironic that the Book Depository description of Where The Wild Things Are includes the phrase: ‘Supports the Common Core State Standards’. Sendak famously did not write for children, saying, “I write stories, then someone else decides that they are for children.” I wonder what he would have to say about the heavily pedagogical motivations behind adults encouraging children to read his stories.
Sendak readily acknowledged his inspiration for his stories, and this one was apparently inspired by King Kong.
Disclaimer: If you attend Floyd Light Middle School, or any other school, especially if your teacher is called Mr William McDonald, and he has set an assignment on “Louisa, Please Come Home”, you should probably know that he does not agree with the following analysis. (I probably don’t agree with it either. I wrote it ages ago.)
In any case, if you’re brave enough to refer to my personal blog in an assignment, prepare for a condescending lecture and a bad mark.
Without meaning to, I keep reading short stories written by women who died young: Katherine Mansfield, Angela Carter, and now Shirley Jackson, who died age 48 in 1965 of heart failure. Jackson’s husband released Louisa, Please Come Home after her death. Before that, she was best known for The Lottery, which is still her best known short.
Shirley Jackson’s best fiction is troubling and creepy, but this story, though interesting, is neither scary or suspenseful. Instead, you’ll be left wondering what possessed the main character to do such a thing, and maybe you’ll start wondering if our view of the people closest to us is really the accurate version.
I’m sure this short story appeals to me partly because I’m interested in the idea that perhaps there is no ‘true self’ — that we learn to fill the roles imposed upon us. I explore this same idea in our YA short story app, Hilda Bewildered.