“When well told, a story captured the subtle movement of change. If a novel was a map of a country, a story was the bright silver pin that marked the crossroads.”
Author: Renate Yates
Publication Details: Chatfield, H and Williamson, J, A Twist in the Tale, A Collection of Stories, Longman, 1996. OR Knight, S (ed), Crimes for a Summer Christmas, Allen & Unwin, 1990, p. 141-143.
Setting: a children’s playground in an Australian park
Character(s): a mother, two small figures and a victim
Narrator: third person
Keywords: murder, necessity, protection, devotion, motherhood, child welfare, innocence, familial expectations, responsibilities, risk, caution, courage, twist in the tale, survival.
What is the most common motive for murder? If you have watched the news this month, it would be safe to say that the 21st Century is littered with ideology, or hate crime. In the literature world, we would envisage some kind of plot of revenge due to greed, jealousy, or a dispute. In essence, one might argue there are only ever three motives for anything: greed, survival or revenge. According to experts, Drawdy, Myers and Myers (“Homicide Victim/Offender Relationship in Florida Medical Examiner District 8”) there are two:
…instrumental homicides are motivated by gain (i.e. money or similar forms), whereas expressive homicides are emotionally-based, namely fueled by anger, and may be impulsive.
Yates’ title implies we will get inside the mindset of a murderer, rather than a victim, who would not be either aware of their imminent end or would not be around to tell their story, given that it is “perfect”. What’s more, this murderer is so good, he or she does not get caught. The addition of the word, “perfect”, speaks volumes. Could it also imply that it was efficient? Carried out with little manpower? Well-timed? Without any hiccups? Without witnesses? It is declared that “Murder was a solitary business, or ought to be.”
The reader approaches A Perfect Murder like the board game Cluedo, trying to figure out the murderer and any accomplices, the victim, murder weapon and location. True to the conventions of a ‘twist in the tale‘ short story, this is revealed in the final paragraph.
From the outset we know “she” is the murderer but then we are introduced to her family “the two small figures by the window” for whom she cares dearly as a mother should: “her ways with the two of them were invariably loving, always gentle and tender.” However, the words “with the two of them” imply that she is not so kind and caring to others. Conflicted by this dichotomy (and aware of a generalisation that most murderers are male) we read on. “…in certain situations, she could be utterly heartless, at times even merciless” which seems to confirm things. Yet how can someone so caring and loving become a murderer? Under what circumstances? The author positions us to feel a certain way towards her by way of techniques such as characterisation and point of view.
Thematically, the story illustrates a mother’s obligation to put her children’s needs ahead of her own: “their mother gave them a drink but ate nothing herself.” Furthermore, it examines the protective nature of parents towards young children in particular, “…no harm would come to them while she was there.” It also highlights the lengths a mother is willing to go to for her family. She sheltered them from learning the truth too soon. The murder was a risk she was willing to take:
The quote above, from the text, reminds me not only of the imminent danger in various sports we enjoy but continue to do, but of active play at Swanson School in Auckland. Here, the principal, Bruce McLachlan, rid the school of playtime rules as part of a successful university experiment. “We want kids to be safe and to look after them, but we end up wrapping them in cotton wool when in fact they should be able to fall over.” The study found that learning to deal with danger was necessary. Therein lay the reward.
Auckland University of Technology (AUT) professor of public health Grant Schofield, who worked on the research project, said there are too many rules in modern playgrounds. “The great paradox of cotton-woolling children is it’s more dangerous in the long-run.” Society’s obsession with protecting children ignores the benefits of risk-taking, he said.
As the story’s setting shifts from night to day and from indoors to outdoors, the author introduces several double meanings raising questions about what is really going on. Yates appears to take a dig at us, commenting at how observant the murderer is, “…she looked about her, missing nothing.” Whereas we are invariably, and ironically, missing some vital clues.
According to an FBI report on Serial Murder, such murders involve strangers. An offender selects a victim, regardless of the category, based upon availability, vulnerability, and desirability. How does this apply to our story?
Availability is explained as the lifestyle of the victim or circumstances…that allow the offender access to the victim [in this case the park]. Vulnerability is defined as the degree to which the victim is susceptible to attack by the offender [in the story, the victim is unsuspecting]. Desirability is described as the appeal of the victim to the offender. Desirability involves numerous factors based upon the motivation of the offender and may include factors dealing with the race, gender, ethnic background, age of the victim, or other specific preferences the offender determines [“the small plump figure thrilled her”].
To appreciate the surprise ending even more, read it again and note how the author builds suspense by withholding information or creating ambiguity: “two small figures”, “small sleeping forms”, “the little ones.” Note also how the narrative is crafted so that foreshadowing exits only in retrospect: “she was upon her quarry.” Her choice of verbs create an illusion, developing the extended metaphor.
I first read this in 2011, my first year of teaching and taught it to a Year 9 class (the first year of secondary school). Students do not usually deduce the details to be able to make a solid accusation prior to the final paragraph which serves to bring the game to an abrupt end. I admit that the twist eludes me too, but at least it makes me laugh.
Is she really a murderer though? After all, she is merely attempting to fulfil the first two tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. First, she is spurred on to supply physiological needs followed by safety needs. She reaches self-actualisation too because she accepts the facts – that this was “a simple, necessary murder.”
Theme(s): For mothers, families always come first. One must do what is necessary to survive. Protect the innocence of childhood, once lost it cannot be restored. Have the courage of your convictions to follow through on your dreams/goals. Plan first. Some risks are worthwhile.
Connection(s): This short story can be studied in conjunction with: The Foal by Mikhail Sholokhov located in The Fate of a Man and Early Stories by Sholokhov.
OCT 2013 The New Yorker senior editor, Willing Davidson, talks to writers, Junot Diaz and Karen Russell, about the difficulties of writing short stories. I have drawn on aspects of their discussion which reverberated with me or linked to what I teach in the classroom. The full interview (1.5 hours) is available on You Tube.
Select a style suitable for your subject: What, if any, limitations are there with a particular style? Literature is either based in realism (where a reader may say “I recognise that”) or extraneousness (where a reader meets a werewolf). The latter allows conversations on topics, like rape, where we may entertain thoughts our defences would normally block. (Diaz)
Select a genre fit for purpose: Is dystopia the right genre for me? Dystopia is the genre of consumption. It isn’t new, just high in circulation. It functions as a narrative of consolation with an “It’s already too late to change” idea. Therefore, the reader doesn’t get an energy to change things. The purpose isn’t to reflect on a crisis but rather to resolve fears of where we are at, right now. (Diaz)
Dystopia is about doom, our own mortality. It is unleashed in an accelerated way. It is a dog eat dog kind of world. (Russell)
Appeal to a wide audience: When writing, if you deliberately focus on speaking to a narrow group of people, all sorts of readers connect to it. People like detail because the writing does not become pretentious or generic. The writer is really talking. (Diaz)
To reach a wide audience, write very specifically. (Diaz)
Diaz states, “Readers are welcoming” by nature and therefore, a writer cannot alienate someone. If a story has a human element or a sense of vulnerability, then it helps all sorts of readers connect. They see the character/writer as a human being. (Diaz) Even in a dystopian text, readers may be hit with the idea of potential or hope like in the ending of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road which Russell describes as providing a sense of utopia.
Include messages about issues affecting you or your area. Your passion will appeal to a certain audience. Russell’s first novel, Swaplandia!, is about the incremental damage to ecological areas like Florida’s Everglades. It clearly argues that development has its price.
Have a clear idea of the meaning you hope to convey: Interviewers often ask writers about the meaning of their text(s), yet these questions are superfluous since texts are always open to interpretation. Diaz replies, “The book is the sole property of the reader. It is irrelevant what the writer thinks.”
It would seem that several authors share this idea: Oprah Winfrey asked McCarthy whether The Road was just a story of a man and his boy or something deeper. (read full interview)
His reply was yes, but “…obviously you can draw conclusions about all sorts of things from reading the book depending on your taste.”
Welcome, rather than be wary of, different interpretations: Unintentional messages are a source of further discussion. Diaz notes that in some dystopian texts, women are invisible. In Suzanne Collins‘ The Hunger Games (ironically written by a woman) the protagonist, Katniss, loses her sister, is cut off from her mother and only has productive relationships with males. There is a deficit of relationships. What is this saying? (Diaz)
I gather the writer is accountable for the simplistic, key, message (singular) to be gained from reading any literature but the complexity of that message unravels and permeates, for each individual reader as they delve deeper into the text, experiencing the world for themselves. The reader is accountable for becoming aware of a kind of collage effect of messages (plural). In this way, the book is never “finished”. It lives on, regenerating ideas. Perhaps this is why we refer to texts in the present tense, even after we’ve read them. When a book is finished, you can reopen it and the characters live again. It reminds me of those magazine piles which are never discarded but rather passed on from gran to mum to daughter to friend to her mum to her gran…
If you, too, have listened to or read an author’s interview which resonated with you, comment below.
The original ‘Girl on Fire’
Author: L E Orman
Publication Details: Landfall, 142, vol. 36, no.2, June 1982, p. 129-132
Setting: New Zealand
Character(s): Miki, Michelle and Mum
Keywords: motherhood, growing up, naivety, regret, adoption, mother’s intuition, caution, familial expectations, being impetuous, feeling discarded, loneliness, hindsight, heartache.
At the beginning of Orman’s writing career and well before The Hunger Games‘ “girl on fire”, there was Miki, with “eyes glinting in the firelight.” The title itself hints at what is to follow. Often, references to concepts of fire in texts represent chaos and destruction. However, this idea is somewhat softened by the addition of the word “song” which has different connotations.
Firesong is a little like a bildungsroman in one, compact chapter. We follow Miki’s development through three phases of her teenage life as she grapples with increasing responsibilities. Whether in fact she comes of age depends on your interpretation of the ending and her future.
The story reflects a changing relationship between mother and daughter which is clearly noted in Miki’s actions and change of character, as well as her mother’s comments.
As a 16 year old, Miki falls pregnant. But what will she do? Abort, adopt or give it all the aroha she has? How will she cope? What will happen when she is 18? Is there just one new member of the family or two? Who is the father? How will Mum react?
From the initial character description, it is clear that this is the product of a New Zealand author: “She was lovely, she had hair as black as the bush when the moon sleeps, and teeth as white as the manuka flower.” To deepen your understanding of this story, note the reference again to ‘black’ at the end and how the connotation has changed. What does it imply?
I first read this in the 6th form (Year 12, the penultimate year of secondary education). I wonder if I would have had the same reaction as I do now as an adult? I empathise with Mum, probably because she is the narrator, and am left feeling sad, angry and anxious. The final line is deep and haunting, even more so, when I learned that the idea for the story was inspired by something that actually happened to friends of the author.
Is it true though, that our choices define us forever?
Theme(s): Only fools rush in: Teenagers should enjoy being a teenager. There is plenty of time to be an adult – later. Think of others before yourself. Learn from experience. Experienced mothers know best. Be true to yourself. Nothing lasts.
Can you name a short story you read at high school? It’s probably easier to remember that ‘classic’ novel your teacher forced you to read (for weeks and weeks). I want to put the spotlight back on the short story.
As a secondary school student myself, years ago, I remember enjoying short stories and being baffled by others. Yet as a teacher, I am lucky if I teach one a year to each of my classes. My goal is to increase exposure to this literary form and encourage variety in a reading programme, eliminating the reliance on selecting the next trilogy (as good as it may be).
One of the joys of the short story, the bridesmaid to the novel (at least in profits), is that it is so much more accessible, if only you can locate one in your local library. More on that later. Short stories should appeal to the slow reader, the indecisive reader, and those not willing to take a chance. What is the worst that can happen? It will be over before you know it. Of course, there are those short stories that students insist have been wrongly classified because they are more than the anticipated four or five pages, such as ‘The Most Dangerous Game‘ by Richard Connell.
I was inspired by my twitter community (namely #edchatnz) to begin a blog but much like the elusive idea of a tattoo, I could not pin down what I really wanted. The dream lay dormant until I read my colleague’s blog entitled #365picturebooks. As the title suggests, Steph will read and review a picture book a day during 2015. I guffawed at the mere thought of matching that and given the SMART way to establish a goal, I have decided to select, read and review one short story a week. By 31 December 2015, there will be 52 reviews and perhaps some other developments (like ideas for classroom activities and student reviews) posted here.
What can you expect?
- Short story selections predominantly suitable for teenage boys.
- Selections including, but not limited to, New Zealand authors.
- A mixture of new and old (perhaps forgotten) stories.
- References to the original sources. Sadly, this may be difficult as many short story collections are on stack in my local library and others, even those by great New Zealanders, are no longer in print. I will do my best.
- No posts of the texts themselves in order to avoid copyright infringement.
- No decision on a tattoo design!
My target countdown has been added to the sidebar, drop in any time to view my progress or read a review.