BASS 2018: Ron Rash, “The Baptism” from The Southern Review, Autumn 2017

Chagall: “Moses Striking the Rock” (1931)

As with almost all my fiction, this story began with an image: a baptism scene on a frozen river. I sensed the time was the late nineteenth century and that the minister was deeply conflicted about performing the rite. Where the initial image came from I cannot say. It was not derived from anything I’ve ever heard of happening. After finishing the first draft, I realized that my naming the child Pearl established a connection to the Pearl in The Scarlet Letter, but that too was, at least initially, subconscious. My perspective on stories is Jungian. They already exist; thus writers are more transmitters then creators. But how well the story will be told is conscious, a matter of craft.

~ ~ Ron Rash, Contributor Note


Contributor notes – a feature of BASS I greatly enjoy – are a two-edged sword. Sometimes they give me real insight into this mysterious art called writing. Sometimes they confuse me, as if I’d read the wrong story. And sometimes, as here, they do both.

This is one of the shorter and, I thought initially, easiest to read stories in this anthology. The widow Eliza has two daughters to care for, and needs help with her farm, so when bad guy Gunter’s wife hangs herself (there’s a strong hint later that it wasn’t suicide) and he wants to marry her eldest daughter Susanna, that’s just fine with her. Reverend Yates tries to talk her out of it, to no avail, and Susanna later enlists his help in running away to escape the predictable abuse. When Gunter turns his sights on the fourteen-year-old daughter, Eliza again goes along with it, but requires he be baptized first. The town wants Yates to refuse to do the baptism, but he agrees. Everyone is so agreeable in this story. But the river is frozen over. Gunter, not to be denied his third wife, grabs a shotgun and smashes the ice, predictably falling through into the water. Maybe the community could have rescued him, maybe not, but nobody tries too hard, and the town embraces Eliza and Pearl, Susanna returns, and all is well. Except Yates isn’t sure if he maybe sorta should have warned Gunter about the ice.

I had a couple of issues with the story, but I thought I had a handle on it, until Rash’s mention of the “Pearl” connection threw a wrench in the works. In Hawthorne’s book, Pearl was the unrecognized daughter of the town minister, a secret kept by Hester Prynne even as she was shunned by the community for bearing a child while her husband was away. Is this to imply that the Pearl in this story is Reverend Yates’ child as well? I want to reject that idea, only because, well, I don’t like it; it doesn’t fit with the story as I read it. But maybe that’s exactly why I should consider it: how does it change things? It tarnishes Yates, but strengthens his motivation; it also explains why the community, which warmly embraced and cared for Eliza and Pearl after the central incident, didn’t help out this widow with two children before, strengthening her need to allow her children to marry Gunter in the first place.

But none of that was what really struck me about the story. I focused on the sermon Yates preached on the Sunday of the proposed baptism.

The next morning at the service, Gunter sat with Eliza and Pearl on the back pew. Reverend Yates had contemplated altering the sermon he’d written out Thursday night, but found himself to vexed to do so. As planned, he spoke of Moses, and how he’d lead his people to the promised land though unable to enter that place himself. He read the sermon with as little attentiveness as his congregation offered in their listening, Gunter’s presence casting a pall over the whole church.

Moses was denied entrance to the Promised Land because of an incident at Meribah (“conflict”) described in Numbers, Chapter 20: Moses struck a rock instead of speaking to it, as commanded by God, to draw forth water. It’s a passage that’s been expanded upon for millenia by both Jewish and Christian scholars: why such a severe punishment for such a minor lapse, particularly when, in a prior time, Moses was indeed told to strike a rock to obtain water? But, however interesting the commentary is, the fact remains that Moses was excluded.

The striking of the rock and the striking of the ice seem so similar to me, it’s easy to overlook that it’s Gunter who strikes the ice, and he ain’t no Moses. But it’s Yates who bears the guilt of not speaking, as he looks upon a community made whole again by the elimination of Gunter:

To look up on such a sight from his pulpit was surely a sign of God’s grace, Reverend Yates told himself, but on late nights he sometimes contemplated his silence when Marvin Birch offered the cocked weapon. Had his refusal to warn Gunter been a furtherance of God’s will for his own desire to be rid of the man? On such nights the parlour became nothing more than shadows and silence. The manse’s stillness widened beyond the walls into the vastness of the whole Valley.

Damn, he even brings the vastness of the Valley, as Moses was permitted by God to view the Promised Kand from a mountain. But he was still not permitted ot enter, as Yates can’t partake of the peace and harmony the congregation feels. Is his guilt necessary? He seems to think so. But I have to wonder: Gunter comes across as cruel, but not stupid or incompetent; how could he not know breaking the ice was a terrible idea? I’m a city girl, but the dangers of iced-over lakes are well known to me (then again, today we have PSAs). But if this particular guilt is unearned, is there another guilt it masquerades? And we’re back to Pearl.

My blogging buddy Jake didn’t care for this story at all. I had a similar reaction to the first Rash story I read, several years ago. And I’ll admit, I may be wildly overreading in my above comments. I can’t resist a biblical allusion, and sometimes I find one that isn’t actually there (hey, I left the Susanna chapter of Daniel, omitted from the Protestant canon as apocryphal; I do have some sense of discretion).

I’m interested in Rash’s idea of Jungian stories: maybe this is why we keep retelling the same ones, the stranger comes to town (like Gunter) or the hero’s journey (Netflix just added Joseph Campbell’s 1988 “Power of Myth” series, which is so ingrained in the contemporary literary corpus, it almost feels clichéd, though, like Shakespeare and Pope, it created the clichés rather than repeating them). Do authors deliberately put the references and linguistic tricks into their work that we discover, or is genius the capacity to write so that a deeply resonant story, in whatever contemporary form, taps into these elements even when read centuries later? Does the writer bake the cake, or does she merely provide the perfect mix of ingredients for the reader to put together?

Ron Rash: “The Trusty” from The New Yorker 5/23/2011

New Yorker Art by Christian Northeast

A decent suit, clean fingernails, and buffed shoes, and he could walk into a business and be greeted as a solid citizen. Tell a story about being in town because of an ailing mother, and you were the cat’s pajamas. They’d take the Help Wanted sign out of the window and pretty much replace it with Help Yourself.

There’s a legal term called “the doctrine of clean hands” that requires someone pursuing a lawsuit to have gone into the transaction in question with “clean hands” – as an extreme example, you can’t sue your partner if he takes off with the loot after a robbery. I had the feeling one character at the end of this story understood that doctrine thoroughly.

It’s a fairly simple Depression-era story about a chain gang prisoner, Sinkler, a trusty not shackled so he can fetch water for the gang, who plans an escape with a very young housewife, Lucy, married to Chet, a farmer twice her age. In his interview with Deborah Treisman, Rash mentions Edith Wharton’s “hard considerations of the poor.” Lucy’s poverty is palpable here: a pail is an object of desire, bargained over. The story is told 3rd person from Sinkler’s POV, a crucial decision, as we are left to assume Lucy’s motivations from her comments and behaviors, just as Sinkler is. They plot a mutual escape, him from his prison, her from her husband and life of poverty. Sinkler isn’t sure what he’ll do with Lucy – he needs her to get to Asheville, where he can get rail tickets westward, and he’ll probably take her along for a while, maybe abandoning her at the next stop, or possibly taking her along as a partner in crime, at the very least getting some sexual gratification from her in the meantime. He’s mulling all that over when things change on the way, through forest and brush and hillside, to Asheville.

It’s difficult to discuss much without giving away the ending. The word “trusty” is a pivot here. Remember the fable of the scorpion and the frog? “It is my nature.” But – considering the Wharton quote above – who is really the frog, and who is the scorpion? Are not both trusters, both trustees? The last sentence of the story carries a great deal of weight and changes what could be a routine story into something a little more interesting. For me it brings in the awareness of what options one has when one does not have “clean hands”, a sort of honor among thieves. And the quote above brings in some irony: this is a man who knows how to fool people using appearance.

There’s a wonderful comment by Betsy on the The Mookse and the Gripes website (there usually are, it’s a great blog. I’m not sure why it’s not on my Cool Sites list but it will be when I next update in a week or so) tying the “trusty” to our current recession and other political-economic instances of untrustworthy trustees.

When I saw Ron Rash was this week’s author, I was a bit nervous. I recently read his story “The Ascent” in BASS 2010, and was very negative about it (I admit freely I must’ve missed something). Though I wouldn’t call it a favorite, I enjoyed this story much more. I’m sure Ron Rash will sleep better knowing that.

BASS 2010: Ron Rash, “The Ascent”

I’m going to get myself in trouble here. Because I didn’t think much of this story, and I seem to be the only person on the planet – including the Tin House editors, Richard Russo, and whoever it is that decides who wins the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award – who felt it was manipulative and trite. But come on – Lyndee doesn’t like Jared, our ten-year-old narrator, because his clothes smell bad, so he fantasizes about protecting her from imaginary bears, Mom and Dad are crackheads (or whatever the drug is, meth I’m told) and Mom’s making a Christmas tree by draping tin foil over logs in the fire, and Dad swipes the ring ten-year-old Jared swiped off a dead body and buys more crack (plus a box of Lucky Charms and a beat-up old bike). And Jared would rather spend time in a plane with two dead bodies than with the dying bodies he lives with. What, no “Please, sir, I want some more”?

Maybe I’ve become hardened. But I don’t think so. I’ve read stories about children in tough situations that broke my heart – “Summer, Boys” and “All Boy” to name two very recent ones. Maybe I’m just not up to unrelenting misery and injustice, a la “Rollingwood”. Maybe I’m just read out. Maybe if I read it again in a few months I’ll feel differently. But it just felt like overkill.

Originally published in Tin House, this story is included in the collection Burning Bright which won the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award in 2010. So I’m a little nervous posting this. But I swore I’d be honest in these comments, and I felt jerked around, with every possible woe heaped on this kid. And of course, it’s Christmas. Maybe that was the tipping point. I’m not naïve; I know there are kids who live this kind of life. I didn’t feel compassion or empathy with this kid. I just got annoyed at the author standing over my shoulder saying “Look how bad it is!” every three paragraphs.

I guess I still have a lot to learn.