PEN/O.Henry 2011: Lynn Freed, “Sunshine” originally from Narrative Magazine

Zavros/Hood: "Le Corbusier"

They told Grace they’d found her curled in a nest of leaves, that since dawn they’d been following a strange spoor through the bush, and then, just as they’d begun to smell her, there she was, staring up at them through a cloud of iridescent flies.

This is one of those stories, like “Incarnations of Burned Children,” that is so well-done you can’t help but read it over and over to see how it does what it does, and so horrific you suffer every time you do.

It’s available online, so if you haven’t read it, do so. You might want to wait until you have a good chunk of time. Not because it’s a long story – it’s only 12 pages in the book – but because you may need some time to recover. Or just to think, let it sink in. Maybe to consider as you read how you’re reacting to each new piece of information. Maybe reread to pick up what you missed because you’d read it with a certain frame of reference and by the end had distorted that frame into a bizarre shape that no longer makes sense. Take your time.

Maybe that was just my experience. I started out with, “Oh, it’s about this, I see, it goes in this box.” But then as I read on, no, it’s more about that so I put it in that box, but it didn’t really fit there, either. Horror? Fantasy? Nineteenth century historical colonialism? Future shock? Slavery? Apartheid? Misogyny? Man defiling Nature? The Wild Child? It is all and none of these, perhaps. In the end, it’s a story unto itself.

The author started with a feral child, and intended to write a novel (from her Contributor Notes). She’s also interviewed “she did not know where the plot of Sunshine was going until it got there.” [addendum: the St. Mary’s College seems to have taken their newspaper, The Collegian, offline] And in a different interview, that it’s “about the tyranny of master over slave, evil over innocence, and of the complicity of the powerless in the suffering of others.” And by the way, she finds writing a process that exhausts her, and she “avoids it like crazy” – “I’m deeply suspicious of people who love writing,” I’ve always wondered why there are so many of us who are tortured by writing, we procrastinate, clean our bathrooms and go to the gym rather than write, yet we end up writing anyway because we can’t stop ourselves. But that has nothing to do with this story. Does it?

The story itself: wild child vs Master De Jong and everyone else, from the hunters who initially capture her and sell her to De Jong, to his slave Grace who is used to cleaning up and civilizing such captives and tells them when she brings them to the Atrium “there was no way out,” to Beauty, another slave who holds the girls down for whatever needs to be done, to the doctor who fixes her broken arm and her rotted teeth, to the families of the girls sent to him for such civilizing so that “when he was finished with them, the girls would fetch a decent bride price regardless” to the girls themselves, to the village men who “liked to say they’d come to his house one night and cut off his manhood like a pawpaw. But Grace knew it was all talk. Without his money, where would they all be? Where would she be herself?” So De Jong, it seems, is Too Big To Fail.

I don’t think, however, that the story is really “about” De Jong, or the wild child. It begins and ends with “them.” They share the guilt. And in the last lines, They pretend it could never, of course, have happened.

I was introduced to this story some time ago when someone posted a link on Zoetrope; the writers there are always happy to see stories in online journals win prizes. But reading it again, a year later, it’s just as powerful.

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