Jon reviews short stories and books on his website The Inquiring Reader. As a Software Developer, he is developing the beta version of a web application for reviewing and discussing articles from magazines and journals, named The Commons App.
I am typically moved most by short stories that focus on a single event, a single emotion, and swiftly make progress to their objective. Writers tend to pause in their narrations. They tend to change topics, setting, or embroider their language in lieu of a steady plot.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with this. Experimenting with form and style is what makes such a wonderfully diverse, literary landscape. But what moves me most is when I feel an overwhelming urgency, too afraid to put the story down in the fear that if I look up, it will leave me.
This sense of passion and urgency is what I felt from Lauren Groff’s masterful piece, “The Wind.” There is a single emotion that surfaces above all others: despair. It builds gradually throughout the story, entirely nonexistent at first, until it becomes the driving force behind it all. It reaches its breaking point and shatters into pieces of sorrow, remorse, guilt, and even a bit of optimism.
I found Groff’s prose to be captivating. It reminded me of Hemingway in its directness, its simple pronouns representing characters, and its rolling sentences combined with endless “ands.”
So the daughter had risen as usual and washed and made toast and warm milk for her brothers, and while they were eating she emptied their schoolbags into the toy chest and filled them with clothes, a toothbrush, one book for comfort. The children moved silently through the black morning, put on their shoes outside the porch.
Groff uses an interesting narrative structure. The story starts off as if told from an unrelated third-person, referring to the characters as the mother, the daughter, the older boy. All of a sudden, the narrator’s true voice breaks in.
He was six, his brother was nine, and the girl was twelve. These were my uncles and my mother as children.
The narrator tells the story as herself, but also as if she was summarizing the words of her mother, Michelle, at the time the events occurred. It’s an intriguing structure, providing us a sort of redemption that at least some of the characters survive while the story spirals into chaos and sorrow.
It doesn’t start off all doom-and-gloom. It begins seemingly lighthearted, as if the siblings are playing some practical joke on each other. One of the brothers tells the narrator’s mother that “Kids are going to make fun of you, your face all mashed up like that.” I imagined that Michelle had done something to herself on accident or as a joke simply to mess with her brothers.
The tone changes as the kids jump onto the school bus. The driver, Mrs. Palmer, makes a sarcastic comment about Michelle’s “shiner,” slang for a black eye, as if she didn’t know its provenance. Then, Michelle asks Mrs. Palmer, very seriously, to drop them off at a stop before school to meet their mother. Mrs. Palmer immediately knows something is wrong. But why didn’t she acknowledge it before?
Mrs. Palmer lets the kids off the bus. They get into the car with their mother and drive to her work to pick up her last paycheck. She plans to get them all out of town as soon as possible. As they walk into the restaurant where the mother works, the manager changes the mood.
Without looking he barked, You’re late, Ruby. But then the children caught his eye, and he saw the state of them, and put the potatoes down and reached out and touched my mother’s face gently with his hot rough hand. Lord. She get it too? He said. She’s just a kid.
As the reader, we are no longer kept in the dark as to what could have happened. We are no longer spared the grim details.
Shoved his gun in my mouth this time, my grandmother said. She didn’t bother to whisper, because the kids had been there, they had seen it.
It’s clear that the kids got off the bus to meet their mother and escape from their abusive father. But there is an undercurrent of futility coming from the community. They seem to notice the abuse – Mrs. Palmer on the school bus, the manager in the store – but don’t take action the change things.
This is because the father is a police officer. For the sake of the short story, it makes the situation even more dire, but I found this detail to be allegorical more than anything. What happens when the entire structure of society is bent against you, your freedom, and your well-being?
Groff throws us a rope, suggesting that the children make it out of the situation – although deeply scarred. In the middle of her narration, she changes settings momentarily, to a point sometimes in the future when the children are grown up and out of the town.
My younger uncle reached out his little hand, and Joseph, who hated all show of affection, held it. Ralphie had a fishing accident when I was a teenager, and my cold, dry uncle Joseph fell apart at the funeral, sobbing and letting snot run down his face, all twisted grotesquely in pain.
The fascinating narrative structure doesn’t stop here. Before finishing the story, Groff makes it seem like they all escape to safety. But the narrator knows better. Of her mother’s retelling, she says that “behind her words I see the true story, the sudden wail and my grandmother’s blanched cheeks shining in red and blue.” For a moment, we had a light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe all we are left with is despair.
This was the way my mother later told the story, down to the smallest detail, as though dreaming it into life: the forsythia budding gold on the tips of the bushes, the last snow rotten in the ditches, the faces of the houses still depressed by winter, the gray clouds that hung down heavily as her mother drove into the valley of the town, the wind picking up so that the flag’s rivets on the pole snapped crisply outside the bus station, where they waited on a metal bench that seared their bottoms and they shuddered from more than the cold.
It has been sometime that I’ve read a short story so moving and well written. I believe this last paragraph speaks for itself for how skilled a writer Groff really is.
On the other hand, the author of this website, Karen, made a fantastic point when I asked to write guest post on this piece. She said that it reminded her of Alejandro Puyana’s “The Hands of Dirty Children” which she reviewed last year.In that review, she writes “somehow it feels – not is, feels – manipulative of the reader and almost exploitive of the real-life kids.”
Could we interpret Groff’s story in a similar way? Could she be exploiting the terror at the heart of this story for “shock value”? As she says in this interview with the New Yorker, the story was inspired by a person she really didn’t know a “few decades ago, in a ratty booth at some bar in Philadelphia.”
Given this background, does Groff have the right to use this story? She says the “the original teller would never recognize their story here” but that she kept the “truth at the center of it.”
I’m not able to come up with an answer. I lean towards thinking that it’s more representative than “exploitive.” Either way, it’s a very good question to think about. I also may be more susceptible to shock value than other readers, as I am a fan of Cormac McCarthy’s oddly gruesome novels (you can read my review of Blood Meridian if you are interested).
Regardless, I think the story is well-worth the read. It’s emotional, gripping, powerful, and extremely well-written. On my first Read, it completely blew me away. Coming back to it after briefly discussing the story with Karen, it lost some of its allure, but I still cannot help seeing it as an excellent piece of short fiction.