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

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