Thursday, March 24, 2011

M'liss - Bret Harte

Author: Bret Harte
Date: 1873
Setting: the Sierra Nevadas- mid 1800s
Availability: Read M'liss on line, free

Story: Living as an outcast of society in the failed Sierra mining town of Smith’s Pocket, the nine-year-old Melissa Smith survives in a near-animal existence. Her father, former discoverer of the “pocket” of gold, but now the town drunk, pays her no heed. She has been expelled from Sunday School, and lives by her wits and her wiry strength. She is locally known simply as M’liss.

One day, she appears at the schoolhouse after hours, and informs the young school master that she is coming to school. Over the course of the following months, she shows herself to be able to learn, and to act and dress in more socially acceptable ways.

But, when her drunken father commits suicide one night, she realizes that as horrible as he was, he was all she had. The school master becomes, in effect, her guardian. She lives with a large family in town, but spends time with the master whenever possible. They occasionally walk together in the woods, he finds her weaving wreaths of grass and flowers for her father’s grave. Although she is embarrassed, she allows him to share in these moments of her weakness. She likes to weave the poison monkshood flower into these wreaths, and the master warns her of its deadly powers.

Despite her youth, she feels a great affection for the school master. When the pretty, blond, oldest daughter of her foster family, Clytemnestra (all of this family’s children were given ostentatious classical names), develops a crush on the master, the brunette M’liss is outraged and jealous with all the passion of a pre-adolescent girl. She dubs Clytemnestra “that white girl.”

In time, the school master feels the need to leave the confines of Smith’s Pocket, but what will become of M’liss?

Commentary: Bret Harte is sometimes credited with inventing the genre of western fiction. His love for, and knowledge of the American West created vivid settings for his stories.

M’liss is sometimes considered a novelette, and was made into a movie several times. Three silent versions were made in 1915, 1918, and again in 1922 as "The Girl Who Ran Wild." The most famous 1918 version starred Mary Pickford. It was again adapted for the screen in 1936, starring Anne Shirley.

The story does not have deep, hidden meanings, but tells a simple story in a way that appeals to anyone who loves a happy ending. Harte’s stories were captivating as much for their backdrops as for the characters themselves. He was a highly popular writer of the 19th Century. Much of the emotional play of the characters is merely hinted at, and left to the reader to develop through imagination.

The sentimental style perhaps does not speak to modern readers as much as it did to those of a past age, but the truths of human relationships cross all times and places.

Author info: Bret Harte (1836-1902) was born Francis Brett Hart in Albany, New York. He moved to California early and edited several newspapers. Writing was always a passion; his first story was published when he was only 11 years old. As the popularity of his stories waned he moved to Europe and continued writing, spending the last 24 years of his life there. He is considered to be one of the uniquely American writers.

Unusual Words:
stuff- a type of durable cloth of wool, or linen and wool
ceanothus- a buckthorn shrub with white blossoms
drugget- felted cheap fabric

Language skills 8
Depth of meaning 6

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Roommate - Lucinda Gunnin

Author: Lucinda Gunnin
Date: 2010
Setting: Southern Illinois, the city of Carbondale, in the present
Availability: in the anthology Consequences

Story: Tina Black has come to hate everything about the man who is staying in her home. Bob was a friend, an Army veteran, who needed a temporary place to stay. Now, more than a year later, he won’t leave. Tina’s husband, Doug, is too polite to ask him to find a place of his own, and she can’t bring herself to do anything about the situation, either. Bob is so selfish and annoying that Tina has begun to contemplate killing Bob.

Their city, Carbondale in southern Illinois, has been fortuitously spared from tornado strikes throughout history. But on this sultry summer day their deaf cat begins to act strangely and seems to be trying to make Tina follow him into the basement. Just in the nick of time, Tina realizes that a funnel cloud is bearing down on the neighborhood. She and the cat huddle under the basement stairs as the house above them is ripped to shreds.

But, Bob was asleep in an upstairs bedroom. What has happened to him?

Commentary: The Roommate takes a look at the literary phenomenon known as a pathetic fallacy, where the weather is a mirror for the mood of the story or protagonist. But, it is more than that, as Tina struggles with the guilt of her many hours spent wishing that Bob were dead. After the storm, although she is injured and in shock, she is constantly plagued by the guilt she feels over not warning Bob to get into the basement. Is his fate somehow her fault?

Author info: Lucinda Gunnin (see has been published in several magazines under her maiden name of Lucinda Morgan, and writes for the Heartland Women Newspaper. She has had stories published in books from Twin Trinity Media, and won the Fall 2008 Writers Weekly 24-hour short story contest.

Consequences is available as a paperback, or in ebook format.

Unusual Words:
misogynistic- the characteristic of hating women

Language skills 5
Depth of meaning 6

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Magic Fishbone - Charles Dickens

Author: Charles Dickens
Date: 1867
Setting: England in the 1860s
Availability: Read The Magic Fishbone on line, free

Story: Alicia, age seven, is the oldest of 19 children. She lives with her father, King Watkins I, and her mother the Queen. Alicia takes care of all the Princes and Princesses, and they all take care of the baby. The King works in a government office where payday is never often enough! One day he stops at the fishmonger’s to buy some salmon and meets the Good Fairy Grandmarina. Grandmarina instructs him to tell Alicia to save the fishbone that is left on her plate after the salmon is eaten and to polish it till it shines like mother-of-pearl.

If she saves that fishbone until just the right moment, and then makes a wish, her wish will be granted. But she must use it at the right time.

Alicia does save and polish the fishbone, and keeps it in her pocket. She then proceeds to solve the many day-to-day problems of a household with so many children. As each difficult situation arises, she considers using the magic fishbone, but always decides that she can “snip and stitch and cut and contrive” to find a solution. Until one day...

Commentary: This was one of my favorite stories as a child, but it is not well-known. Although it is clearly for young readers, it was written when children’s stories were not reduced to vocabularies of 100 words. Any adult will be quick to catch the meaning behind the story: that we can usually solve the problems that face us, and only need to call in special help when we have truly done all we can on our own.

Children find the reprimands of Grandmarina to the “King” delightful- even the King can’t get away with being foolish when confronted with a fairy. To an adult reader it might seem that Alicia doesn’t hold out long enough before using the magic fishbone, but to a child, her ministrations to the household are quite extraordinary. Alicia’s eventual decision to use the magic fishbone is not a selfish one.

The real is whimsically mixed with the pretend in a way that only children accept without question. The illustrations by S. Beatrice Pearse are wonderful- some are line drawings and some in full color. Dickens attributed the story to a seven-year-old, Miss Alice Rainbird, but common belief is that she was a literary device, not a real girl.

Author info: Charles Dickens 1812-1870, is known for his novels that eloquently called for social reform without being political. He called upon detailed recollections of people and places from his life for many of the settings. Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, A Christmas Carol and other works are still highly acclaimed and read 150 years later, making him one of the truly classic authors. He is known for Gothic settings, intricate and odd characters, and ironic humor. His works are often satirized, because the characters are so easily turned into "cartoons."

Unusual Words:
quarterday- a quarterly payday

Language skills 10
Depth of meaning 7