Alice Petersen's Short Story Playlist
Canadians do the short story so well—individual stories should be as honoured as novels, in my opinion. I have chosen to write a playlist of short stories that have stayed with me, sometimes for over a decade after first reading them.
“A Scarf” by Carol Shields from The Collected Stories of Carol Shields
The Story: A recently successful middle-aged author is on a book tour. For once she is unplugged from domestic chores: she has time to walk, to reflect, to shop and actually to find the perfect silk scarf for her daughter’s 18th birthday. Book tours can be lonely, and she meets up with the former leader of her writing group, a woman whom she respects, even if her own career seems now to have surpassed that of her mentor. Regaling the leader of the group with the tale of finding the ideal scarf, she takes it out to show, only to have the former writing group leader assume that the scarf is being offering to her as a gift.
Why it’s on the list: This story gets me every time, the kind of oh man quality of response when the perfect scarf is taken away. The writer loses the gift through her own need to placate, to be loved and recognized, not just by her daughter, but also by the former leader of the writing group. She wants to give the gift twice – as an object, and as a story of how she acquired it. She ought to have been more careful. I like the self-remonstrance with which the narrator in her low-heeled shoes finishes: a quiet feminist reminder to be firmer, more definite about what we want, because even if we get it, we may not be able to hold it.
“Night March in the Territory” by Mark Anthony Jarman from My White Planet
The Story: Pushing on through the prickly pear after a skirmish with Southern Plains Indians, the remains of a company attempt to evacuate a wounded comrade to Fort Supply Oklahoma. Progress is slow, madness imminent. “We move, gradual as gangrene in a leg.” The story is botha highly subjective voyage on the brink of madness and a comment on the deadlock of a certain moment in U.S. history: “They can’t forgive us for coming in and we can’t forgive them for being there.”
Why it’s on the list: Here is Jarman’s inspiring signature toothsome style, the language that resists, where each word insists on its weight: “Somehow we must carry the mammering wounded men to the honey-coloured river where the hissing boat awaits us, awaits our bad news.” My guess is that Jarman is the only person alive who uses the word mammering, and it works; the buzzing onomatopoeia sets us up for the honey-coloured river, the hissing of the steam-powered boat. This sentence, and so many others, is all about sound, and yet they do the task of moving the narrative ahead. Every gesture is massive, but beautifully articulated.
“Art” by Leon Rooke from Painting the Dog: The Best Stories of Leon Rooke
The Story: A devoted spouse brings home a bunch of flowers and a cow to tether on the front lawn. He feels mildly disappointed because the milkmaid was not for sale, and he would have liked to have the milkmaid too. He puts the flowers in water, and mixes a nice gin and tonic for his wife when she comes in from work. A pleasant enough scene, only this drink ruins their life, because the wife spills it on herself, and water damage is ruination if you happen to be a figure in a painting.
Why it’s on the list: I love the sparse quality of this tale; the way the central characters are as simple as claymation characters, but endowed with such feeling that the end feels like a true tragedy. Each time I read this story I am so touched by the horror and the tenderness expressed by the couple. He knows that his wife is hurting, but he cannot touch her for fear of contamination. He begs her not to cry, since that will only make matters worse. Here is life within the frame, as all happy married life is, falsely buoyed up by the feeling that disaster happens to other people: “You get confident, you get to thinking what a good life you have, so you go out and buy yourself flowers and a goddamn cow.” I can’t take my eyes off this water-based couple, beautifully strange, beautifully minimal, beautifully believable.
“Cortes Island” by Alice Munro from The Love of a Good Woman
The Story: A young married couple live in a basement apartment, where they are at the mercy of their prying landlady, Mrs Gorrie, whose only occupation is to care for her paralyzed husband and watch her neighbours. The young wife struggles with her early attempts to write, her inability to find a job, her ignorance of domestic life. Eventually she accepts to sit with Mr. Gorrie in the afternoons, until a job at the library and the possibility of a new apartment carry her forwards into married life.
Why it’s on the list: I always enjoy this story because it deals with being young, and with beginnings of all kinds. There is a rich intensity in way that the struggle to write stories and the urgency of sex in early marriage are combined with the mangy decayed animal power of old Mr Gorrie and the fiery, mysterious start of the Gorries’ relationship as a much younger couple. Here, did the young narrator but realize it, is a real story. And of course, switching the telescope around, as she so often does, Munro permits the same woman, older, wiser, to reveal her appreciation for this story, only much later.
“Girl in a Gingham Dress” by John Metcalf from Standing Stones: The Best Stories of John Metcalf
The Story: A divorced man’s friends sign him up for a dating site. He surveys his life, the sink full of unwashed dishes, the room ready to receive his son when he visits, he decides to work his way down the list of suitable women. After a series of hilarious set pieces, including a date with a woman who cooks salmon in the dishwasher, the man finally meets the woman of his dreams. They seem perfectly matched, only, they share a first date at a seafood restaurant, where she collapses mid-meal from anaphylaxis.
Why it’s on the list: The first time I read this story I got very angry. I could not believe that a character could exist with so little self-knowledge as to have a seafood allergy and not know it. After some research I discovered that anaphylaxis can come on suddenly, without a known allergy. Okay, fair enough. So why was I still angry? I was angry because I cared about these characters. I wanted the fairy tale to continue to its appointed end, but instead, like life, the structured romance frays out, leaving us with a waitress whose only interest is in taking the dessert order. The little lives of others have moved already, the ideal of the gingham dress has come and gone. I still hope that the central character found some happiness in another story. I still feel badly for him, and that’s pretty powerful characterization.
“Black Peter, 1990” by Alice Zorn from Ruins and Relics
The Story: The setting is in a rural area outside Prague in 1990. A girlfriend has been grudgingly permitted to accompany a posse of experts in church restoration to a remote village where they are expected to restore a crucifixion figure. In the same church they come across the work of a Baroque master, a true treasure, but disguised under layers of black paint. Naturally the restorers want to put the statue in a museum where it can be studied and appreciated, but they are up against the determination of the village priest to protect what he sees as belonging in the church.
Why it’s on the list: I always like to be shown scenes that are new to me and there can be few short stories that deal with the world of European church restoration. The details here feel very accurate. I also like the feeling of prickly antagonism between the different characters: the implicit sexism expressed by the closed group of the church restorers, the trainee caught between his girlfriend and the group, the local priest resisting the influence of the outsiders. Power plays and a large amount of determined lying are evident at every level. This is a tale with a moral question at its core. The story has an authority that appeals to me.
“Turkle” by David Carpenter from Welcome to Canada
The Story: I have been thinking about this tale of a Saskatchewan farmer for fifteen years, ever since I first read it in The Fiddlehead. Here is a man who does not get sentimental about life—he will not name his animals, he will not baby his children, in fact, he sets out in a blizzard in -25 degrees to take them to school. Sure enough, the car gets stuck, he disappears while going for help, the children near freeze to death, and it’s the mother who has to organize the rescue.
Why it’s on the list: Some stories end with the cymbal flourish of a standup comedian’s joke, but this story comes at you from a distance, like a bell ringing, getting louder and stronger, until it swings off at the end with a grand barn scene where the proud farmer is rebirthed from the depths of the disemboweled Turkle, the nameless cow. The arc of this story follows right through to the final line: “Oh the sight of his clotted head when he first smelled he air of the barn and he opened his mouth to howl and cry in mother’s arms.” There’s a quality about this story that reminds me of the great writer from the South, Flannery O’Connor.
New Zealander-Canadian Alice Petersen was the 2009 winner of the David Adams Richards Award, offered by the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick. Her stories, published in Geist, The Fiddlehead, Room, and Takahe, have variously been shortlisted for the Journey Prize, the Writers’ Union of Canada competition, the CBC Literary awards, and the Metcalf Rooke Award. Petersen lives in Montreal with her husband and two daughters. All the Voices Cry is her first collection.