Short Reading Lessons in Writing: In the Fall

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 how they take their coffee.

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 This month’s story was “In the Fall” by Alistair MacLeod, Canadian author, former public school teacher,  and professor of English.  Mr. MacLeod* was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in recognition of his contributions to Canadian literature—an honor that every single reader in my group thought he more than deserved.

 The narrator of “In the Fall” was fourteen years old when his poverty-stricken family could no longer afford to feed the elderly, sick pit-horse that had once waited through a freezing cold night, untied, for the narrator’s father, out of loyalty—a story that the children had heard and loved all their lives.  The narrator’s mother is adamant that they must sell the horse to the knackers before winter comes so that she can afford to feed the chickens that she sells at Christmas—the family’s main source of income while her husband is away at the mines.  The children hate the idea, especially the narrator’s ten-year old brother, who doesn’t understand why his parents would let the odious, foul-mouthed knackerman take the horse to be killed.  The horse balks at being loaded into the truck by the abusive man until the father is forced to lead his old, loyal friend up the ramp.  The younger brother, enraged and betrayed, runs to the chicken coop with an axe and kills the capons that his mother was raising to sell at the Christmas market, then throws the axe at his father, harmlessly, before running away.  The parents cling to each other for comfort, while the narrator—either in the past or the present—goes in search of his brother.

 This one was a tear-jerker.  And apparently, that was okay.

It was unanimous that this story was the best one they’d read all year, even if it was depressing.  They minded that it was depressing—they were all hoping that there would be a last-minute reprieve for the horse and the family, even though they knew it wouldn’t have been realistic—but they still liked it. I received several requests for another of Mr. MacLeod’s stories for next year, which was a first.

So how did he do it?  Let’s see . . .

Most of the discussion, which went so long I barely had time to make it across town to cover lunches at another branch, was in praise of the descriptions.  The readers felt the cold and the wind, the depression and the anger, knew who the characters really were—and the intensity of those descriptions appeared to transcend the melancholy of the story.

One reader—who was so enthused about this story that she scribbled all over her copy and had to be gently restrained from interrupting everyone else’s opinions—said that the thing that impressed her the most was that there weren’t any extra words at all. Every word meant something or did something for the story.

When I mentioned that I thought Mr. MacLeod’s use of present tense helped connect us to the action, half the room lit up in amazement—they’d been so caught up in the story, they hadn’t noticed:  “What a neat trick!”

The characters were all discussed as if they were real people.  Even the knacker, whom everyone wanted to see trampled by the horse, was considered a shockingly believable jerk.  Only one reader thought that the ten-year old had something abnormally wrong with him to react with such violence, but the rest thought they understood his need to lash out.  “This is about the difficulty of growing up and facing reality,” said one reader.  “All kids throw tantrums when they don’t want to face things.”**

A few readers wished the father had shown more backbone, but another reminded us that the horse had been sick for years and he’d won the annual argument until that final fall.  Some believed that the mother was colder than she should have been, but some—all mothers, I noticed—felt that she had been forced into being the practical one and resented it, citing her softening towards her husband once the horse was gone.

And no one forgot the poor horse—if it had been possible for our group to enter this story, that horse would have been carried off to be pampered for the rest of his life, leaving those “damned chickens” behind.  This, even though we all understood why the sacrifice was necessary for the sake of the story.  One of our members grew up on a farm, and she said that horses were a luxury:  “It’s wonderful when you can keep them forever and it hurts when you can’t,” she said.  “But people come first.”

Maybe that’s why this story captured us—Alistair MacLeod knows how to put people first, even when it hurts.  And he knows when to leave the reader with a different kind of hope, as the grieving family draws together in the end.

No wonder he’s an OOC.

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*As far as I can tell, he doesn’t use the “Dr.” prefix, but if I’m wrong, please let me know.

**Amen.