Thursday, February 09, 2017

"Wickedness" (1989)

Story by Ron Hansen not available online.

Ron Hansen's story is not a short story in any conventional sense but more a collection of anecdotes involving a terrible blizzard in Nebraska in 1888. He describes the way the storm intersects with many different people, each separated by a line break. It's powerful stuff and it's all in the details. Along the way he notices how the temperature falls from 30 degrees to 14-below in a matter of hours. So much snow falls that some people can leave their homes only via their roofs. Visibility grows so poor that one woman leaves her home, disappears, and is not discovered again until spring, only a few feet from her door. It's a wonderful and harrowing collection of incidents, many of them shedding acute light on the people attempting to deal with the storm. A teacher, for example, tries to lead two of her students to her home—they live too far to get to their own. But the three are lost even in the short distance to her home. They take shelter in a haystack, but the teacher can't save the children from dying of exposure. Her feet have been so badly frozen they must be amputated. She is so bitter about it that she lets her health get even worse, until finally the town takes up a collection to send her to Oakland, California, where she complains about Nebraska for the rest of her life. This is one of the longer anecdotes in the story, and one of the best examples of how sharply drawn so many of these characters are. The teacher responds heroically, because it is her only choice, and she pays for it with a daunting trauma. But her heart is hardly pure and her end is not that surprising. That's a lot of what makes this a really great story. The character portraits are necessarily pithy (some no longer than a paragraph or two) but they are rich and complex, finding human beings acting in all their manifold ways and with distinct motivations good and bad, even as the calamity descends: stoic, enduring, bearing horrific privations, with horrific results, nursing ancient resentments against one another, and experiencing unexpected joys. All of everything seems to be somehow packed into this. The story ends on a beautiful note of someone callow getting lucky on that day, after so many others found the opposite. For one incident in one place in one time—a momentous incident, it's true, a tremendous blizzard—this story grows to become at least as big as that storm, by simply piling on with the details. A great one.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

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