Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Best Thanksgiving Story - Thanks to Richard Russo and Stephen King

This is a Thanksgiving story you no doubt missed, but one that you'll be delighted to read.

It comes to you by way of The Best American Short Stories of the Year 2007, selected by Stephen King.  The story itself is entitled "Horseman," and was written by Richard Russo.  It begins with part of a nursery rhyme from Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses:

Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the moon is high,
All night long through the dark and wet
A man goes riding by.
Late in the night when the fires are out,
Why does he gallop and gallop about?

Whenever the trees are crying aloud
And ships are tossed at sea,
By, on the highway, low and loud,
By at the gallop goes he.
By at the gallop he goes, and then,
By he comes back at the gallop again.

The poem easily adapts into a song, and Shawn Colvin has recorded a version of it with just those words.  The poem becomes an earworm for the protagonist, a graduate student, after her husband begins reading it to their child every night.  We aren't told her interpretation of the poem, but in the first paragraph we're told that this earworm runs through her mind even when she is jogging in the woods behind her New England college, making her as melancholy as if she were "jogging not through the woods but through an endless cemetery."

End of paragraph one.

It is two days before Thanksgiving, with the bare November tree branches swaying all over campus, the nearest branch "scratching insistently, like a memory" against the protagonist's office window.

The protagonist is confronting one of her male comp students whom she has caught in flagrant plagiarism.  She shows him the evidence, and he responds like a belligerent jerk.  It is a beautifully written scene.  We see her mixed feelings, but we also see her restraint, despite the macho arrogance of the student.

"A moment before she had been feeling both anger and self-righteousness.  These were easy, unambiguous emotions to which, in the present circumstance, she felt entitled.'

"She was angry, and rightly so, that students cheated more often in her classes than in those of her male colleagues, just as they were more often tardy, more openly questioning of her authority, and more often gave her a mediocre evaluation at the end of each term.  Even worse, the fact that they held her to a higher standard was unwitting.  Had anyone asked them if they were prejudiced against their female professors, not one would have answered yes.  Hooked up to a lie detector, every one of them would pass."

The story then goes into italicized flashback, with the protagonist being confronted by her professor.  A parallel situation in a way yet nothing of the sort, as the professor is only criticising her for being too withdrawn, too formal in her writing, for not putting enough of herself, of her own passion, into her work.  Although this only makes her angry at the time, eventually she comes to see the truth of it, that she has distanced herself--not only from work but from other people as well.

We see her transform through her reading, as well as through her contacts with other professors and students, all of them flawed in their own ways.  She decides to avoid condemning the plagiarist and instead she gives him another opportunity to write his own essay, a chance to redeem himself.  We don't see how it turns out.  Perhaps the student is just going through an adolescent phase and will learn better, or perhaps he is a psychopath who cannot be reformed.  No matter.  The teacher tries to do her job; she tries to teach him rather than punish him.

She reconsiders empathy; she reconsiders forgiveness; she reconsiders gratitude.  She even invites a lonely obnoxious old professor to have Thanksgiving at her house with her family.

The story has a hopeful ending.  It is a parable, but unlike so many parables that we see on television during the holiday season, this one seems less sentimental and more real, truer to life itself.  You should read it yourself; my synopsis of it here does not do it complete justice.

There is a flashback in her memories to a beautiful scene at a bar where the professors take turns nominating the greatest lyric poem ever written.  When it is her professor's turn, he recites Stevenson's "Windy Nights," the poem above.  When asked for an explanation, he replies, "Because when I speak those words aloud, my father is alive again."

This professor also recognizes that literature gives us the chance to see what life is like for someone else.  What it feels like.  Literature.  Life.

An appendix to the volume gives each author a chance to comment on the writing of his selected story, and Richard Russo's comments must be read.  He says that the protagonist is loosely based upon a fellow academic, a woman who was smart and attractive, but also "guarded in the extreme, the way academics can be."

"In the language of Star Trek, she'd diverted all power to her shields, which was probably why I was so startled one night when I saw her with her defenses down. . ."

"It came to me--slowly, the way these things do--that she was like many academics I'd observed over the years.  You'd think that the life of the mind, especially the liberal arts, would make us better if not happier people.  But too often it doesn't.  The study of literature had what I believed to be a salutary effect on my own character, making me less self-conscious and vain, more empathic and imaginative, maybe even kinder.'

"Perhaps it's an oversimplification, but as I've gotten older I've come to wonder if this is what reading all those great books is really for--to engender and promote charity.  Sure, literature entertains and instructs, but to what end if not compassion?"

Indeed.  Happy Thanksgiving!

1 comment:

  1. I adore the work of Richard Russo and yet I've never read this story. Thanks for the alert. :)

    I'm adding this collection to my list.

    Nice to find another Russo fan.