I must be feeling especially nostalgic lately, because I have been thoroughly enjoying the short stories I have been reading of late, most notably by Elizabeth Parsons (must give you a gentle nudge again about her) and this weekend's story by Sally Benson. Benson was a screenwriter and a prolific short story writer whose work appeared in The New Yorker. Probably her most famous film is Meet Me in St. Louis, which I'm afraid I've never seen. But I had heard of Sally Benson before and I own a BOMC edition of her famous novel Junior Miss, which I see was also adapted to film. Needless to say after reading "After the Ball" I will dig out my copy of Junior Miss (now OOP).
Sally Benson's story is not exactly hard edged satire or a story showing great depth, but as stories go, she was a great observer of the social scene and "After the Ball" is really quite charming. I came across Twenty Grand Short Stories when I was browsing for a few new short story anthologies to draw from. I had found a list of contributors and the book seemed promising, but I had no idea that the stories were chosen with a young adult audience in mind. The collection was published in the early 1960s when there was no YA genre--at least not in the very popular form as it is today, so authors included are heavy-weights that you might not automatically think of in terms of a younger audience--Dorothy Canfield Fisher, William Saroyan, Dorothy Parker, Katherine Anne Porter, John Steinbeck and Sinclair Lewis among others.
Not all the stories are actual short stories but some are excerpts or chapters from novels (this being a publication originally by Scholastic Magazine, which they are careful to note they do not approve of). The brief introduction is interesting to read since it was written in the 60s and the editor, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, refers to her own youth some fifty years prior. I like these sorts of books since they give a view onto a world long gone and changed. The stories selected are meant to show teen readers life of the college student or college age youth. It will be interesting to think of the stories in those terms.
I envy young people their youth, but I have no desire to be a young person today. I only want their stamina perhaps. As I was reading Benson's story, I could only think that some things really don't change. While the details might be drastically different, the situation is not all that new. Benson's story is an excerpt or chapter from her 1938 novel Emily. It's a pretty common scenario and I saw it not so many years ago with my own niece. A young woman wants only to be older, to appear older, to hang with an older crowd, even while she is still really not much more than a child--and those who she would realistically be more comfortable with (and probably have more in common) are the very people she most disdains. And that older crowd? Had they known, or when they find out she is passing herself off as older and more mature than she is? They drop her like some little kid who keeps following them around.
"No one could have guessed her age seeing her drive around town in the cream-colored convertible coupe, with its top down. Her lipstick matched her nails and blended with the color of her dress; rust polish with green, red and white, or brown, rose with pastel shades. She was perfect from her smart well-fitting sandals to her seemingly endless supply of small felts. Her manner was perfect, too. She spoke in a tired, low-pitched voice, and she looked at the very person she was addressing as though he were very, very far away."
Norma is just sixteen but looks older and can pass herself off as part of that hipper crowd much to the chagrin of her mother. She has worked things out so that she and her mother are summering in a different beach town with more opportunities for her to test her independence which is a little bit laughable seen from the vantage of age, but is still something we all go through in one way or another. This is a gentle sort of read and there is a minor (though maybe not so very minor to Norma!) moral dilemma. It was pleasant, gentle reading and just what was called for on a hot summer's afternoon. I'll definitely read more from this collection and I think I'll be on the look out for other anthologies like this--not YA collections per se, but collections that are out of print now but have good authors nonetheless represented--whatever the topical slant may be.
I have to put in a good word for "An Afternoon" by the way. I've been reading the stories in the collection and have loved each one. It's such a pity that Elizabeth Parsons is no longer read. I've even gone into the archives of The New Yorker and printed out the stories that don't appear in the book so there will be more to look forward to later. I'll write about the collection as a whole later--I am reading it at leisure rather than gulping it down. I've been eyeing a few other collections that are by contemporary authors, or are recently published collections with older stories, but I will save those for another day. I'm not sure where my short story will take me next weekend--prepare for a surprise.
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I have to admit I've been feeling pretty "meh" lately about the stories I have been reading in the most recent issues of The New Yorker--nothing is quite grabbing me of late, but I am very pleased with Louise Erdrich's story "The Flower". You can read it in full here and let me know what you think! The Q&A with Erdrich is here. Flower is the name a young clerk gives to an eleven-year-old Ojibwe girl who is bought by a trader. The clerk, Wolfred is not much older than the girl. He has come from out east since he is a younger son and there is no room for him in his family's business. The mother of flower, once a beauty, has had a harsh life and shows the scars from it. It being the 1830s it is not such a surprise that this would go on, that these women, this girl is likely to lead a life of misery. Flower is perhaps worse off than others, since under all the dirt and muck that covers her, she is also a beauty. And Wolfred knows what might happen, so as soon as he cleans her up, he muddies her once again to try and keep her safe. Safe for a Native American child at the time meant being pulled from everything you know and being inserted into the world of the white man, which brings its own problems with it. What is better, to give up all you know for a little safety, or be left to a world that is quickly disappearing for your tribe? It was a beautifully told story. How have I not read Louise Erdrich yet? I have a number of her books. Have you read her? Do you have a favorite? A recommended place to start? As always I am thankful for short stories as a way to taste more authors' work!