Friday, June 5, 2015

A Month of Short Stories: Day 2

daThis morning I got to read two lovely short stories that I really enjoyed by two early American female authors.  I had heard of neither-a sad example of the general state of literary equality.  Both were so well written that I am definitely going to do some research on these authors and see what else they wrote.

Caroline M.S. Kirkland

The Schoolmaster's Progress by Caroline M.S. Kirkland

This story is set in the early 1800s in the "New Country" (meaning the West/Midwest of United States) and revolves around the mishaps and romantic entanglements of the new, local schoolmaster.  After finally gaining respect from the community, he begins to fall in love with a young woman who always wins the spelling bees.  When a woman with all kinds of airs and graces (and year-old French fashions, our author notes disdainfully) comes condescendingly to a spelling bee, she sees that it would be easy to trick the schoolmaster.  In a series of tricky ruses, she begins to write him letters, pretending to be the woman he admires, Ellen.  Of course, Ellen finds out about this and the the whole thing literally comes crashing down during the school's reenacting of David and Goliath.  That description of the fake letters falling down on David's head made me laugh out loud.  The two-Ellen and the Schoolmaster-live happily ever after, while the scheming city woman returns to the city.  

I wouldn't call this laugh out loud hilarious-it's better.  Kirkland's humor is the American west version of Austen.  It is nothing but sly, funny jabs and commentary.  The section on the bumbling, incompetent exam writers made me laugh out loud (apparently the ridiculous bureaucracy surrounding exams is older than I thought).

The other thing that impressed me about this story was the universality of it.  I was not alive in the American west in the 1800s, but I could perfectly understand, nay, recognize, those situations.  Yet Kirkland so perfectly wrote about these dramatic events that a reader today can still understand and empathize with the story.  That is a sign of excellent writing.  I also thought it was interesting how group dynamics and the kinds of people described here, the challenges and dramas they face, really haven't changed that much in the past 200 years.  
Eliza Leslie is most well-known as a cookbook writer.

The Watkinson Evening by Eliza Leslie

Another very funny story.  This one is about a snobbish widow and her son and daughter, who go to New York with letters of introduction (an interesting phenomenon I had not read about before) in the hopes of meeting all sorts of distinguished people.  They are first invited by a Mrs. Watkinson, who tells them that they must respond at once.  Of course they respond in the affirmative, feeling that they are very wise to go to so influential and wealthy a lady.  Minutes later, a woman whom they all instinctively like, invites them to her grand ball, full of famous people, including an ex-president.  With regret, they stick with their first invitation and come to the Watkinson's house to find it all dark and the family sitting dully in the cold drawing room.  The evening is disastrous and our main characters leave feeling very sorry for themselves.

This short story is of the type of humor that recounts a series of disastrous events to great effect.  I laughed and laughed (and cringed a bit, too) at the silly protagonists and their even more ridiculous hosts.

Both of these stories were fantastic.  I hope that you can find copies of them somewhere, because they are definitely worth a read.  

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