Yours by Mary Robison Short Story Analysis

An old crate label for canned pumpkin

“Yours” is a 1982 short story by American writer Mary Robison. The year before The New Yorker published this short story, Robison published a novel called Oh! which was adapted for film in 1989. The film is called Twister. I don’t meant the late 90s blockbuster but a domestic drama set during a cyclone.

Delusional and spoiled Maureen and her eccentric brother Howdy decide to track down and meet their estranged mother, all while the drama of dysfunctional relationships, disastrous weather conditions and a dark family secret ensue.
Delusional and spoiled Maureen and her eccentric brother Howdy decide to track down and meet their estranged mother, all while the drama of dysfunctional relationships, disastrous weather conditions and a dark family secret ensue.

As for “Yours”, this is a very short story, so won’t take long to read. But you’ll probably want to read it again right away. Otherwise you may be left wondering what it’s all about, especially regarding the significance of the pumpkins.

THE PUMPKIN AS SYMBOL AND MOTIF

The pumpkin is clearly a motif. What’s the difference between a symbol and a motif? Symbols are more universal. They tend to stand for the same sorts of things across different stories, and even across time and culture. Motifs work like symbols, standing in for something else, but they are specific to the work of art at hand.

So what do pumpkins symbolise, generally? Hallowe’en, for Americans, and increasingly for the rest of the world. (Here in Australia kids are starting to Trick or Treat, even though Halloween happens in spring.)

Pumpkins are also sometimes a sexual symbol. (What isn’t?)

Sir Nathaniel Bacon Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit c.1620–5
Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit c.1620-5 Sir Nathaniel Bacon
Halloween themed publicity photo featuring actress Anne Nagel
Halloween themed publicity photo featuring actress Anne Nagel

Mary Robison’s short story is set around Hallowe’en, so the story utilises the Hallowe’en pumpkin as part of the plot. But these carved pumpkins are doing more than simply establishing a Hallowe’en setting. Let’s take a closer look.

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Magical Times of Day

Songs at Midnight, Billy Daniels with Benny Payne at the Piano

Before we had clocks, humans paid more attention to the sky and environment. Read older classics such as the novels of Thomas Hardy and notice how characters make use of all their senses once the sun goes down. They couldn’t simply flick on a light. Even though candles have long been available, they were expensive. My own Northern Irish peasant ancestors were well-accustomed to darkness.

I know this partly because an optometrist told me I have large pupils which don’t dilate down all that well. Especially when young, I had no trouble navigating the dark. Like many child readers, I was constantly told to turn on a light.

Clocks (and later, home lighting) changed our entire mode of being:

So kind of 13th, 14th century, mechanical clocks start diffusing and they start in Italy, but they rapidly go from city to city and towers are trying to one off other towers and they would ring bells. And it led to the city kind of literally running like clockwork, like they ring the bell and everybody wakes up and then has breakfast and then there’s the lunch bell and so the city begins to run like clockwork. But the clock doesn’t diffuse into the Middle East and other cultures didn’t seem to have the immense interest in getting a clock the way the Europeans do.

Joe Henrich on the Preposterous Universe podcast

Industrialisation also put an end to genuine beliefs about certain magical times of day.

THE BLUE HOUR

The blue hour is mostly a photography and art concept. Especially on older cameras, photographs taken at the ends of the day turn out better than when taken under bright sunlight. The blue hour comes from French l’heure bleue and refers to the period of twilight when the sun dips below the horizon, causing residual sunlight to cast a blue light over the landscape.

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A Woggle of Witches by Adrienne Adams Analysis

A Woggle of Witches is a picture book written and illustrated by American storyteller Adrienne (“Dean”) Adams in 1971. In total, Adams wrote six of her own books; mostly they illustrated for other writers.

Adrienne Adams was a prolific illustrator through the 1960s and beyond, and a two-time winner of a Caldecott Medal (1960 and 1962). Adams was born in Arkansas in 1906 and grew up in Oklahoma. They studied in Missouri.

Adrienne Adams worked with tempera, gouache, watercolor, and colored pencils. Black is a distinguishing and important part of her palette, the colour which basically told the whole story.. Unlike many illustrators, Adams handled the chromatic separation, regarded for being a mundane but necessary process. Adams was as particular about the printed process as Beatrix Potter, and acknowledged that what came out in print was always a gamble.
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The Widow’s Broom by Chris Van Allsburg Picturebook Analysis

The Widow's Broom Chris Van Allsburg cover

“The Widow’s Broom” is a 1992 picture book by American author illustrator Chris Van Allsburg. Like many of Van Allsburg’s books, this one remains popular with teachers, partly because this is a storyteller who requires the reader to do a little work. Students can practise their inference skills in class.

Like all good stories which rely on reader imagination, this picture book can be interpreted in a number of ways.

THE DUAL AUDIENCE OF THE WIDOW’S BROOM

This is an example of a story which will be used one way in the infant classroom and quite differently in the senior Language Arts classroom.

A broom which ‘walks’, feeds chickens and plays piano will appeal to children at an early stage of development, which Piaget described as spatial egocentrism. He also talked about child development and animism, the worldview that non-human entities possess consciousness and a life of its own. In modern picture books animism tends to finds an outworking in animals who walk and talk like humans.

[A]nimism…is the belief that everything in nature has consciousness and life…. When Christopher Robin, the child in Winnie-the-Pooh, talks to his woodland friends, a donkey, a tiger, an owl, a pig, and a bear, he is engaged in what Jean Piaget has called ‘animism’. As do the majority of picture books that feature animal characters, a child engaged in animism, readily accepts that animals can and do behave as humans. An example is Olivia, Ian Falconer’s character who has resonated with adults and children alike and is the protagonist of [more than] five titles.

A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and Using Picture Books

Go back in time, to the early 1900s and before, and you’ll find plenty of children’s stories in which household objects come alive. This trend mostly seems to have gone away. (Likewise you won’t find so many moons with actual faces on them in contemporary picture books.)

Hey Diddle Diddle and Baby Bunting - 1882 Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886)
Hey Diddle Diddle and Baby Bunting – 1882 Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886)
Ketchup Rag, by Irene M Giblin (1910)
Ketchup Rag, by Irene M Giblin (1910)

When picture book storytellers do utilise animism to bring household objects alive, it’s generally to hark back to an earlier time. Here, to the pre-Christian world of superstition, modern ideas about Paganism, and fairytale. Therein lies the historical interest for older readers, culminating in a quite sophisticated message about humankind.

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The Symbolism of Dolls In Storytelling

Charles Haigh Wood - Storytime 1893

Dolls serve as comfort; they also creep us out. Which is it gonna be? And how do storytellers utilise their multivalent presence in our lives?

Outside the West, dolls are sometimes a part of supernatural/religious belief. Perhaps the most memorable and oft-utilised by storytellers is the Haitian vodou usage, which has been heavily simplified for Western audiences. Likewise, the concept of the ‘gwumu’ in Papua New Guinea is complex, and ‘doll’ is a substandard translation:

People describe gwumu as an agency hiding inside the body of another: it may be referred to as a “doll” for example, and an additional idiom I recorded referred to these familiars as “little sisters”. Though gwumu are held to be concealed in the interior of persons, they may nevertheless sometimes be seen as apparitions, especially when they have left the body of a person to hunt.

Becoming Witches
Honor C. Appleton for 'Josephine's birthday' (1900)
Honor C. Appleton for ‘Josephine’s birthday’ (1900)
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You’re Ugly, Too by Lorrie Moore Short Story Analysis

You’re Ugly, Too” is a short story by American writer Lorrie Moore, first published in a 1989 edition of The New Yorker — Moore’s first for the New Yorker. Find it also in her short story collection Like Life (1990).

New Yorker editors pointed out to Moore several “vulgarities” of the writing process she had committed in the story. “All through the editing process, they said, ‘Oooh, we’re breaking so many rules with this.’

Encyclopedia.com

Why did the crew at The New Yorker feel Lorrie Moore’s short story — the first of hers they’d seen/discussed seriously — broke the ‘rules’ of writing? What rules were they talking about.

I wasn’t there and can’t tell you for sure, but I’d like to consider this question.

  • Zoë is a woman, but she’s not “likeable”. She’s not even likeably unlikeable. (At least, she’s not written that way, panding to readers’ desire to like their main characters).
  • Zoë’s actions never fully make sense to the reader, even after re-reading. Her actions at the party, like her sense of humour, are absurd.
  • Zoë is nihilist and therefore passive. A difficult character to write.
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In A Dark, Dark Room And Other Scary Stories

In A Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories

In A Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories written by Alvin Schwartz was first published in 1971 for emergent readers ready for scary… but not too scary. I recently looked closely at a modern picture book called Creepy Carrots, another excellent example of a ‘scary’ story perfectly pitched at 4-6 year olds. This collection is for emergent readers and is a bit more creepy than that. The adult reader is unlikely to be scared by any of these, but many adults today have wonderful memories of A Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories.

Table of contents illustrated by Victor Rivas
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Creepy Carrots by Reynolds and Brown Analysis

Creepy Carrots book cover

Creepy Carrots (2012) is a picture book written by Aaron Reynolds and illustrated by Peter Brown. For anyone wondering how to create a scary book for the very young reader without keeping them awake all night, this book is our masterclass in the horror-comedy blend.

First of all, the story is about carrots — a familiar, everyday food item not typically associated with horror. This story is therefore an inherently funny ironic juxtaposition.

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The Creepiest Body Parts

The human body is a grotesque, meaty thing. Storytellers can make use of our squeamishness by breaking the body into parts for horror or for comic effect.

In his autobiography Going Solo, Roald Dahl takes a voyage to Africa. Onboard the ship he meets all sorts of weird and wonderful characters, as Dahl was inclined to do.

One woman he met only ever ate her oranges with a knife and fork. When Dahl asked her why, she told him that she couldn’t stand fingers. Fingers disgusted her.

Finger Cookies

Sort of related: In Which We Consider The Macabre Unpleasantness of Roald Dahl, from This Recording.

Of all the phobias it’s possible to have, surely a visceral reaction to one’s own body would be one of the worst. There’s just no getting away from fingers. They’re there all the time, following you around. With fingers it pays to err on the grateful side, in fact.

Since reading We Need To Talk About Kevin I haven’t been altogether fond of eyeballs (nor lychees). This clip from the movie adaptation isn’t going to help none.

Despite being prone to suggestion, I have no such qualms about fingers. (I’m less fond of toes, especially toes with long, yellowing toenails.)

And now there’s a YouTube series which isn’t doing a hell of a lot for my appreciation of the mouth and throat region.

This is the first instalment, in case you happened to miss it.

More recently those Japanese scientists have got the damn thing to sing.

In the video below, a dog thinks (or likes to pretend) that his own foot is out to steal his bone.

The pulp magazine covers below play on the same fear: hands grabbing you from behind. Until you turn around, you don’t know who they belong to.

Any disembodied body part is freshly anointed as the creepiest body part. Horror stories make the most of this trope. Take the end of Child’s Play, in which Chucky’s disembodied parts just won’t quit. This makes use of the horror trope in which the villain is basically a robot who cannot be killed.

This trope also used in comedy. The Cloverfield Paradox also features a disembodied body part — an arm — but to great comic effect.

CREEPY BODY PARTS IN CHARACTER ILLUSTRATION

Caricature can be used to either comic or horror effect, same as many tropes shared by both genres. Sergey Vladimirovich Alimov (1938-2019) was an illustrator who exaggerated body parts to horror effect.

The cook by Harry Kressing, 1965 .Book cover by Milton Glaser
The cook by Harry Kressing, 1965. Book cover by Milton Glaser. The height of this character, repeated in the strong shadow, gives this figure an unnerving look.

In the illustrations below, take particular notice of the feet, which look at first glance like pig trotters or cloven hooves. Weird feet is a fairy tale and folklore trope from way back. A character appears normal, until you notice their heinous and shocking feet. These feet are so small that they are dwarfed by the hands.