52 Stories #25-26: Two Stories I Liked More than I Honestly Expected To.

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

Welcome back to #52Stories, in which I examine 52 short stories to discover what makes them resonate with readers. Today, I’ll be covering 2 stories that I put off reading for a long time–as in, I had the library books physically on my shelf for almost 2 months before finally reading them. As it turned out, I enjoyed both and look forward to discussing them with you!

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#25: “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” by Amy Hempel (1985)

(recommended by John Reid on the Geek Out Loud Facebook page)

The Pitch

A woman visits her best friend at the end of a fatal illness.

The Payoff

It took me a couple of tries to get through this one, to be honest. The first time, I don’t think I was in the right headspace to read this story, which addresses a serious subject much the way its protagonist tries to–with humor, distraction, and avoidance. Once I was able to make myself sit down and push through, I came away unexpectedly moved and a bit heavy-hearted. While it’s not a story I would recommend easily, it was intriguing and instructive.

The Takeaways

Spoilers from here onward, gang:

  • In this story, the protagonist (whose name is never mentioned?) is the “best friend” of a woman dying of a fatal illness (presumably cancer) in a California hospital. It  seems the women have drifted apart, especially in the early stages of the dying woman’s illness, but the protagonist has finally arrived to bear witness to the final stages of her friend’s life. The interactions between these women provide insight into their relationship–while there was familiarity and even love, it seems clear that they didn’t get into deep waters together. As such, facing the spectre of death, they deal with it by avoiding it–exchanging trivia, watching sitcoms, being generally flippant about the impending end. I think, in a sense, that’s how a lot of people face death–by ignoring it or cracking jokes as long as possible.
  • There is mention of the stages of grief, and the fact that there is no “resurrection” stage. This weighed heavy on me, because it belies a worldview that holds no hope past the grave. I don’t know anything about the author’s own beliefs, but for her characters, there is only the inevitability of the end, and their best efforts to ignore it are simply whistling past the graveyard.
  • The story itself is written in a series of vignettes and brief exchanges, snapshots over the course of a few days, glimpses of the thoughts and feelings of these two characters. There’s something to be said about this approach, especially when you’re telling a story that takes place over several similar days. This is a way to hit the “highlights” and keep things moving through the narrative, which I found to be an effective approach.
  • The protagonist leaves at one point, deciding she really can’t be around for the end, much to the anger and hurt of the dying woman. Later, the protagonist says that she might tell the story differently in the future, essentially “rewriting” her narrative to say she stayed faithfully, and no one would know the difference. I liked this insight into the character and her desire to rewrite her regrets.
  • Throughout the story, there’s a running anecdote about a monkey that learned sign-language.  The final few paragraphs concludes this running story with a gut-punch of an ending. Hempel sets this up nicely as a way to indirectly reflect the grief that her character dare not express even to herself. While this approach can be done ham-handedly, there’s a lightness of touch that Hempel employs here, which lends it much more of an impact.

In the final tally, I found this to be a well-written story that frustrated and saddened me in the ways the author intends–and thus was very effective.

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#26: “The Branch Way of Doing” by Wendell Berry

(Berry was recommended by @TeeCeePal on Twitter, but I couldn’t find the exact story collection she named. I hope this will do.)

The Pitch

The son of a rambler becomes the patriarch of a very particular kind of family.

The Payoff

I’d only read a little bit of Berry’s poetry before reading this story, but my, his writing sings. I can see why so many people rave about his work. This story isn’t so much driven by plot as it is a peek into a family history that feels warm and inviting and familiar. Frankly, I wish I could hear more about the lives of these characters, which is the best thing you could ask from a short story, right?

The Takeaways

While the story isn’t humorous as such, there’s a bit of the folklorist-historian in its telling, recalling Garrison Keillor or Will Rogers. You get a clear and firm sense of middle America and its rich history and deep roots. Obviously, this is woven into the the very fiber of the tale; it’s part of a collection of poetry called Roots to the Earth that celebrates the American farmer and farming culture. What I’m getting at is that the story is rich and full, like strong coffee and dark soil, and just as inviting.

The title refers to the culture that Danny Branch establishes in his family, a culture that is endemic of mid-20th-century America: the individualism, frugality, neighborliness, and resourcefulness of the generation that lived through the Great Depression. The Branch’s represent a particular mindset that rejects the flashy and expensive for what is trusted, true, and traditional. In an age like ours that is screen-obsessed and noise-driven, this glimpse of a simpler time and place feels refreshing, if not a bit inspiring.

The only critique (and you really can’t call it that) I have of the story is that it seems to be two or three stories in one. The first section focuses on Danny Branch’s father, Burley Coulter, and his relationship with Danny and the other people in the community. The story then transitions to Danny as an adult and how he and his wife built their family culture and raised their children. The final section of the story (about Danny’s son and his “new” car) then feels a bit tacked on–as if it weren’t so much an illustration of the Branch way of doing as it is a somewhat-related anecdote. While all 3 parts are arguably justified and obviously interesting, I wonder if this instead could have been the seeds of a collection of stories about this family. (I, for one, would welcome such a revision.)

That’s all I want to say, so as to avoid giving much else away. I’m not sure why I was hesitant to read this one, but I’m glad I eventually did. Berry is a wordsmith with a well-deserved reputation, and “The Branch Way of Doing” is a sterling example of that.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

2 thoughts on “52 Stories #25-26: Two Stories I Liked More than I Honestly Expected To.

  1. Two authors I’ve read but two stories I haven’t. I like in particular what you have to say about the Hempel story and your perhaps “not being in the right headspace” to optimally read this story at first. I encounter that phenomenon often in my short story reading. Sometimes just putting one down to read at another time to give it a “fair chance”

    Keep up the good work on your #52 stories project!

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