Thomas Pierce: “Shirley Temple Three” from The New Yorker, 12/17-24/12

New Yorker art by Scott Musgrove

New Yorker art by Scott Musgrove

House empty again, Mawmaw steps onto the back porch to smoke a menthol and feel the cool night air on her freckled skin. The night air is a natural force, and natural forces help you remember how small you are, and when you remember how small you are in the Big Picture you see how silly it is to be upset at almost anything.… And she understands that one day—who knows, maybe even tonight in her sleep—she will die and enter God’s eternal golden Kingdom and feel His Love, and when that happens all her frustrations and concerns will be like dewdrops on the windshield of a fast-moving car, the glass streaked clean and clear of all blurriness. That thought is a true comfort to her, and she’s close to letting go of her anger, but then she allows herself to picture Tommy with that boyish look on his face, the one he puts on when he pretends to have absolutely no idea why anyone could possibly be mad at him.

A basket of kittens makes an awful gift. But it’s nothing compared to a Bread Island Dwarf Mammoth, cloned back from extinction. Makes for a damn good story, though.

If this sounds like a take-off on Jurassic Park, it’s a testament to the skill of the writer that the cloning is played quite low-key in the story (it’s available online); it just gets us to the point where Tommy, under suspicion of the authorities for mammoth-napping, leaves Shirley Temple Three with Mawmaw. He calls it Shirley Temple because that was the name of her dog, who got out of the pen and died under the porch years before, and of course there was the original Shirley Temple. The naming is the sort of detail that gives a richness to the story by subtly playing with ideas of connections and inheritance. It also distracts the reader from the science fiction aspects and keeps focus on the heart.

It’s really a story about the relationship between mother and son, with a little theology thrown in. And it works beautifully. Tommy may be the guy who gets by on charm and doesn’t visit his mom as often as he should, but he’s also the product of an illicit affair, and when he found success on television, he bought Mawmaw her house. When we see Shirley Temple Three in the dog pen that Shirley Temple (the dog) used, right out in back of the house Tommy bought his mom, we see that generosity in a new light.

Inevitably, Mawmaw becomes attached to the mammoth. It’s quite touching, really, and surprisingly realistic. She combs its hair, and when that hair starts falling out in clumps, uses her expensive custom-made lotion on the irritated skin, brings it into the air-conditioned house in case it’s the heat that’s causing it (mammoths being used to the Ice Age and all), calls a vet to diagnose the problem, and asks Pastor Frank to pray for it. She can’t do much about the real problem: “It’s been yanked out of its own time and lives outside God’s natural laws.” But, in the best traditions, the essence, of true Christianity, she does what she can to alleviate suffering.

The ending is what I’m hearing more and more called a “typical TNY ending.” I view it as a “Lady or the Tiger” end, and as a circling back to the beginning. Both first and last scenes open with Mawmaw upset, and Tommy arriving. The first time, she’s upset because he’s missed the cousin’s wedding, but her pique melts once he shows up. Will that happen again, indicating an ongoing cycle? Or has something changed, thanks to Shirley Temple Three – who was brought into the picture by Tommy himself, making him the agent of Mawmaw’s change? I think of it as a participatory ending, allowing the reader to decide. But that’s probably me making excuses because I enjoyed the story.

Pierce’s Page-Turner interview touches on this relationship between dogma and faith:

Frank’s deeply entrenched beliefs trump his faith. That is, the man’s beliefs are fixed, and his faith is shallow. I think that’s true. What Pastor Frank offers are easy answers. His basic philosophy is one of rejection. Rejecting new information and not asking questions leads to stagnancy, and stagnancy is probably more insidious to faith than a mammoth or the fossil record could ever be.

I’m not sure how they found illustrator Scott Musgrove, but it was a match made in heaven. If you have an oddball sense of humor, you really, really want to read his About page. And you might also want to see his illustrations of such things as the Walktopus and the Dwarf Basket Horse.

It’s a really good story, readable and engaging; I’m very impressed with how Pierce used a premise that could’ve gone off the rails, and made me forget about it and focus on the loneliness of a neglected mother and the need to connect that never goes away.

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One response to “Thomas Pierce: “Shirley Temple Three” from The New Yorker, 12/17-24/12

  1. Pingback: David Gilbert: “From a Farther Room” from TNY, 7/22/13 | A Just Recompense

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