A morning short story reading group meets at one of our library branches on the second Monday of each month. The library provides the short stories, snacks, and a staff member to make coffee and keep things moving along. That staff member is me.
I’m learning a lot about how readers read.
And also that homemade chocolate muffins and cinnamon bread earn forgiveness for dishwater java.
This month’s short story was “Cracker Chidlings” by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.
Mrs. Rawlings, a journalist, moved to Cross Creek, Florida from Manhattan in 1928. She was fascinated with the remote wilderness and the lives of Cross Creek residents, the majority of whom were “Crackers”—the name given to descendants of the original colonial-area English and American pioneer settlers of Florida. “Cracker Chidlings,” which features the dialects and customs of her neighbors, was published in 1930.
As the title might suggest, this story is a series of six humorous vignettes centering on a community of Florida”Crackers” . Several feature the traditional enmity between Georgia crackers and the Florida set— “One hates the other as mothers and daughters sometimes hate.”—and read like shaggy dog stories. The characters include a moonshiner’s wife, a poacher, an exasperated minister, several thieves, and a group of hazers, most of whom are sympathetic in context—morally bent, but never broken.
The general consensus was that the stories were fun, light, easy to read . . . and that no one would care to try stew with squirrel heads in it.
But there were four main debates:
To vignette or not to vignette?
Many of the readers liked the pace of the scenes and the way the last lines were a kind of clever moral or twist that made the scene even funnier. “You’d read one—slap. The next one would be different, but you still had the slap at the end,” said one reader. ” I liked that.”
But others expected narrative continuity and drove themselves nuts trying to tie the vignettes together with a thread that wasn’t there. “I couldn’t figure out the shape of the story,” said one. “I thought the last scene would make it make sense, but it didn’t.”
Cultural study vs. literary cheat
Two of the readers saw the story as a collection of localized anthropological studies—slices of traditional stories.
One appreciated the small details and the feel of the community—“She obviously knew these people well enough to poke just a little fun, but insider fun, not outsider.”
But the other thought the author was cheating by simply writing down what people told her and passing it off as her own fiction—“She didn’t use her imagination.”
Apparently, true fiction is as bad as fictionalized memoirs.
Language and customs
I don’t often warn my group about a story when I pass it out, but I did so last month for “Chidlings,” due to some of the language—certain derogatory terms for people of color are scattered throughout the scenes.
While the entire group disliked the terms and hated the insulting assumptions about African-Americans as a group, they were able to put it in the context of the time period the story was written and the insular culture that produced those views.
“Those people didn’t know any better,” said one woman.
“Cracker isn’t exactly a nice name, either,” pointed out another. “Like redneck. It depends on how you were raised.”
I actually think I had the most trouble with this. My interpretations were skewed: I had to keep stopping to remind myself that the author wasn’t using these terms or assumptions to shock or make a statement about the characters speaking them, as modern authors would.* The use of these words weren’t about technique, they were simply dialect and cultural detail.
“You’re overthinking it,” I was told.
Maybe that’s the difference between readers and readers-who-write?
Once a Pulitzer Prize Winner, Always a Pulitzer Prize winner?
I’d mentioned to the group that Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings had written The Yearling, which won the Pulitzer in 1939.
Many of the group judged this story on that scale and were honestly baffled to find that it didn’t seem to fit their idea of award-winning material. They were expecting . . . more, even when reminded that this story had been published almost nine years before The Yearling.
I suggested that writers—or some of them—tended to become better as they practiced. “Practice?” asked a member. “I thought writers just had a knack.” The idea that authors might need to learn to write good stories fascinated her.
“How do they do that?” she asked.
I told her I’d try to find out.
* I also had to tell myself to stop judging the author for being a product of her times and accepting these attitudes without question. . . I’m not sure why I expected anything different. We all can’t be Mark Twain and it’s not fair to ding Ms. Rawlings for not trying to write Huckleberry Finn.