One of the things I like about Andrea Barrett's short stories is seeing where the link between the characters and the focus on science and nature comes in. She also tends to feature women fairly prominently in her stories or themes dealing with relationships, though not exclusively, which I also appreciate. This weekend's story, "Soroche" in Ship Fever, is a parallel of sorts between a contemporary woman and a native man of Tierra del Fuego who was taken from his native land and brought to England for a number of years but returned to his country via Darwin's ship the Beagle.
It's sort of hard to imagine how the two stories could be connected, how one might possibly be introduced or learn about the other. Barrett moves effortlessly between places and people, however, as well as between past and present--even the present's most recent past. This is also the beauty of her storytelling the layer upon layer upon layer to fill in all the tiny details and weave it all together so tightly.
Zaga, who the reader will come to know fairly well, tells this story--of the marriage to and then subsequent death of her husband Joel. It is a second marriage for Joel, who has two children from a prior marriage. They were meant to live with their mother until she scuttled them back to their father. But this is part of their shared past and Zaga tells the story after everything has already happened. It is at his death when she is clearing out their house, clearing out his life and all aspects of their shared life, that she reflects back on an event in their earlier life. It is a past moment that will inform her life at this moment now.
When Zaga and Joel first married, he built her a house, a beautiful large house, which is now tinged with such sad memories she wants nothing more than to empty it out and leave. As she works clearing closets and sending off possessions no longer needed, she remembers a vacation they took together to the Andes--at just the moment the children's mother dumped them off with their father. What should have been a happy time, particularly with the new knowledge they would soon become parents together, was burdened by two nearly grown children none-too-pleased by their stepmother--and only to happy to show it. And whatever moments they might have had together in peaceful bliss are not possible while Zaga suffers from "Soroche" or altitude sickness.
The doctor who treats Zaga spends time with her while she is recuperating and Joel and the children are off skiing and tells her about Darwin's famous trip on the Beagle and the precious cargo, in the form of Fuegians who had been "stolen" and now returned. And of one in particular, Jemmy Button. It is Zaga's own behavior as a widow divesting herself of all her possessions that parallels Jemmy's story.
This is the skeleton of things with the details being fleshed out so perfectly by Barrett in the story. Curiously, sometimes it is not the possessions-however beautiful and expensive-that matter not a whit when they are lost, but the happiness they stand for. The happiness and sadness--the stories that stand for the physical materials that are what matter. It is only in getting rid of them that the truth behind them begins to matter.
Next week: "Birds With No Feet". No New Yorker story this weekend as it was a double issue. I feel almost like looking for another story somewhere to take it's place . . .