Short Reading Lessons in Writing: My Old Man

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 that this is an amazing group.*

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This month’s story was “My Old Man” by Ernest Hemingway.

In it, a young boy describes the years before the death of his beloved father, an aging jockey trying to make a living in Europe.  Although the reader catches evidence of the father’s slide into shady dealings as he gambles and makes book on rigged races, the boy remains oblivious—or perhaps selectively ignorant—of his father’s activities.   When his father saves enough to buy a horse of his own and resumes his jockey training, his son’s faith seems justified.   But when both horse and man lose their lives on the track during their first race, the boy loses not only his father but his childhood illusions as well.

Here’s what I learned this month:

Timing is everything.

This was the first story this year where the majority of the readers didn’t care much about the story.  It was well-written, the descriptions popped, and it was easy to read, but with one or two exceptions, it just didn’t do it for them.

Sure, this story is about love and family . . . but it’s also about loss—abrupt loss—and there’s no happy ending to temper it.   Several people commented on the sad ending.  Someone claimed it wasn’t finished, though it was argued that this could be part of the point—no one knows what will happen to the boy, who is all alone and whose entire education was picked up around the tracks of Europe.

When I asked if they might have appreciated this story outside of the holiday season, there was a thoughtful pause.  “December is more of a Dickens month,” someone said, and there was laughter, but also some nodding heads.

“Dickens didn’t write much about Hanukkah, but at least he’s more hopeful,” conceded another reader.**

“Hemingway can be hopeful,” said a fan.

“When?” said a non-fan.

So maybe Hemingway might not have been the best choice for December.

Hemingway is Hemingway anyway.

Although this story isn’t about war or big game hunting and no one gets shot, those who had read Hemingway’s work before agreed that there was no mistaking the author.

Even those few who disliked the story loved his descriptive style and the way the descriptions popped out as if they were watching instead of reading.  While some argued against the specialized vocabulary, others thought the context was enough—or the writing was so well done that they went with it.

Those who hated the ending seemed to feel that the impact was too great for what had gone before.  “It hit me so hard,” said one reader.  “Why did it have to happen that way?”

“I can see why he won the Pulitzer and the Nobel, but I still didn’t care for this story.”

“Well, I’ve loved everything he’s written.”

“Really?  Why?”

“He’s Hemingway.

It may be worth mentioning here that we unanimously agreed (with one abstention) that the man was a stunner in his youth.  For those of us who usually picture him after the airplane accident that ruined his health, it was no longer a mystery how he snared four wives.

“I figured he got them because he was Hemingway,” said our lone gentleman (and abstainer).

“No,” said a woman, “He got them because he was handsome.  He lost them because he was Hemingway.”***

Also good to know.

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This was the last story of the year and also the last one chosen by my predecessor.  The next twelve are all on me.  This would worry me more, if the group didn’t have such great conversations when they hate the stories.

Here’s the list, if anyone’s interested.  It’s going to be a genre year and there’s no theme per se, but each of these stories^ connect with at least one of the others.

January:  Ray Bradbury— “All Summer in a Day” and “There Will Come Soft Rains.”

February:  Gillian Roberts —“Goodbye, Sue Ellen”

March:  Cynthia Rylant —Mr. Putter and Tabby Write the Book

April : Theodore Dreisler—“The Lost Phoebe”

May : Damon Runyan—“A Piece of Pie”

June :  Octave Thanet—“The Spellbinder”

July:  Zane Grey— “The Rube”

August:  Louisa May Alcott —“The Baron’s Gloves; or Amy’s Romance”

September:  Stephen King—“Stationary Bike”

October :  O. Henry— “The Princess and the Puma.”

November :  Robert A. Heinlein— “Project Nightmare”

December:  Charles Dickens—“The Four Sisters.”

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*Not just because they all presented me with a lovely gift in appreciation . . .

.  . . and made a point of telling me my coffee is getting pretty good.  I won’t lie—I teared up, just a little.

**This, right here, is why I love this group so much.

***And this.

^With the possible exception of the Alcott in August, which is pure floofy 1800s romantic suspense— and long, too.   I’m planning on serving muffins that day so they’ll have something soft to throw at me.