Sonny Criss was named after his father, William Henry Criss, called Sonny for the obvious reasons, and lived with his mother, Delpha Mae Criss, and his father on a fifty-thousand-acre spread halfway between Chugwater and Wheatland, Wyoming. His best friends were his horse, Spider, a 15.3-hand chestnut quarter horse, and his blue heeler dog, Red.
Once upon a time there was a college student. She was in a class on “Forms & Techniques of the Short Story” and had to write a 3,000 word essay, but she didn’t really want to write an essay, and she’d heard a former student had wrangled his way out of the essay by writing a short story, so she wrote a 10,000-word short story instead of the 3,000 word essay. She’d never written a short story before, but hey, she was taking a Short Story class and she’d read a lot of short stories, and what better way to show she’d learned something than to actually produce the form the class was supposed to be teaching. But the professor said, “No.” The woman was very persistent and said, “What about if you give me 70% of the grade for this story – which is, by the way, 10,000 words, longer than the assignment requires, and shows an example of a western, which is one of the essay topics – and 30% for the essay which I’ll write anyway?” The professor said, “No.” But she didn’t give up, and she finally wore him down: he agreed to give her 50% credit for the story and 50% for the essay which turned out to be terrible, but the short story was good enough not only to get through the class but to get her a Fellowship in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop a few years later.
But even though that’s a happy ending, there’s more to this little fairy tale. This was a very persistent woman, and here she’d written this story based on her grandmother and grandfather on the Wyoming ranch where she’d grown up – “a world that doesn’t exist any more” – so it meant a lot to her, and since the story was good enough to get her into the best creative writing program in the country, she sent it out to some literary magazines. They all said “No.” She sent it to a few more, and they said “No,” too. She sent it to more, and more, and more, until finally, after forty “no”s, The Iowa Review said “Yes.”
Now that’s another happy ending, but in fairy tales, things happen in threes, so there’s still more. The Iowa Review nominated the story for a Pushcart Prize and – you guessed it, it won and ended up in the 2013 Pushcart Prize anthology. And that’s how the woman who just wanted to get out of writing a boring essay (and who refused to listen to the word “no”) turned her first short story into a Pushcart Prize, because “We can all be tricked by cleverness and other conceits. Writing with an open heart is hard to do. I wrote this story with an open heart.”
That woman’s name was, of course, Jeanne Shoemaker, and this is a true fairy tale.
Pushcart (and BASS and PEN/O.Henry) makes a good effort to include a variety of voices, including those rural and western. It would be easy to focus on urban/suburban fiction, using the occasional exotic drama of overseas settings to stir things up. It’s harder to include a story most will see as old-fashioned: a lot of exposition. A portrait of a specific family in a setting that, yes, doesn’t exist any more, that may never have existed for most readers.
But that doesn’t mean these voices, these stories, aren’t important. Stories like “Mr. Tall” or “Two Midnights in a Jug” from XXXV, like “That Story” from XXXVI and even “Nothing Living Lives Alone” (which I hated when I read it in BASS) from this volume. They form our history, our culture. They may not be the dominant thread in literature, and I may not even enjoy some of these stories, I may even make some snotty comments about not understanding why they’re prize-winning material and I may even consider them my least-favorite stories in the volume, but they still matter as much as the voice of the post-modernist or the story about the hipster or the exotic overseas locale or the urban academic or the alienated suburbanites embroiled in a hostile marriage.
This particular story is not an easy story to quote; Shoemaker wrote a saga, not sound bites. You have to follow Sonny through his diabetic coma to get the full impact from a passage like this:
Sonny couldn’t shake the feeling that everything he was accustomed to and took for granted was now tentative and flimsy. Though he had always been a good son, he was kinder to his mother and more patient with his father. He patted his horse and dog more.
You have to see that lead into the care he takes with Red after a rattler bite, the scene in the vet’s office, to know these people.
You have to see how they treat their cows, know about Mom getting older and having trouble doing all the milking, the need to sell those cows, before you can appreciate Will’s comment “Pruitt doesn’t know a thing about dairy cows, didn’t even ask their names,” you have to read the whole scene about the selling of those cows, and the whole story for that matter, before you really get something like:
Bosie and Queenie, the cows that weren’t leaving, wouldn’t get out of the way, wouldn’t let Pruitt separate them. Bosie was Queenie’s daughter, her firstborn, and the two ran the herd. They made cow decisions: where to graze, when to lie down, when to get up.
You can write papers about the symbolism there, but only if you read the whole story, this story about a guy who lives on a ranch with his mother and father, who sees the ranch under assault not from marauding bands of hooligans or space aliens but from the 21st century. A family of people who work hard every day until they drop in their tracks, about neighbors who care about each other, about people who are in a daily working partnership with animals and nature, about losing a way of life a little at a time, but hanging on to it with both hands until there are no more hands to hold on with.
If they were a primitive Amazonian tribe facing extinction, anthropologists would be writing them up. But they’re not, they’re us, the us that we don’t think about very much, so it’s up to Jeanne Shoemaker (and Tony Earley and Wendell Berry and Jack Driscoll and Marc Watkins) to write it down so we’ll remember who we are. Thanks, folks.