Dec. 8, 2008

Great Depression Story

by Claudia Emerson

Sometimes the season changed in the telling,
sometimes the state, but it was always during

the Depression, and he was alone in the boxcar,
the train stalled beneath a sky wider

than any he'd seen so far, the fields of grass
wider than the sky. He'd been curious

to see if things were as bad somewhere else
as they were at home. They were—and worse,

he said, places with no trees, no water.
He hadn't eaten all day, all week, his hunger

hard-fixed, doubled, gleaming as the rails. A lone
house broke the sharp horizon, the train dreaming

beneath him, so he climbed down, walked out,
the grass parting at his knees. The windows

were open, curtainless, and the screendoor,
unlatched, moved to open, too, when he knocked.

He could see in all the way through to the kitchen—
and he smelled before he saw the lidded

pot on the stove, the steam escaping. Her clothes
moved on the line for all reply, the sheets,

a slip, one dress, washed thin, worn to translucence;
through it he could see what he mistook for fields

of roses until a crow flew in with the wind—
sudden, fleeting seam. By the time he got back to the train,

he'd guessed already what he'd taken—pot
and all—a hen, an old one that had quit

laying, he was sure or she wouldn't have killed it.
The train began to move then, her house falling

away from him. The story ended with the meat
not quite done, but, believe him, he ate it

all, white and dark, back, breast, legs, and thighs,
strewing the still-warm bones behind him for miles.

"Great Depression Story" by Claudia Emerson, from Figure Studies. © Louisiana State University Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of humorist James Thurber, (books by this author) born in Columbus, Ohio (1894).

It's the birthday of the travel writer Bill Bryson, (books by this author) born in Des Moines, Iowa (1951). He wrote A Walk in the Woods (1998) about hiking the Appalachian Trail.

It's the birthday of Mario Savio, (books by this author) born in New York City in 1942. He was the leader of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in the 1960s.

It's the birthday of novelist Mary Gordon, (books by this author) born in Far Rockaway, New York (1949). Her Irish-Catholic mother was the family's breadwinner. Her father dreamed of being a writer, and he stayed home and looked after Mary. She said, "He bred me to be a lady and a scholar. He spoke seven languages, he read Greek with his meals, he was besotted with me, his only child." When she was only seven years old, he had a heart attack in the New York Public Library and died.

Young Mary wanted to be a nun and a poet. She aspired to "write poetry in my habit and lead a very disciplined life." She loved reading The Lives of the Saints, and she was especially interested in the virgin martyrs. But she said, "The minute I hit puberty, my thing with religion went right out the window." She went to Barnard, got an M.F.A., and started work on a Ph.D. She said that she completed five-sevenths of a thesis on Virginia Woolf before she quit her doctoral program. She got married, moved to London and back to New York City, and then published her first novel, Final Payments (1978). It's a novel about a Catholic woman who lives at home taking care of her ailing father until she's 30 years old. When he dies, she goes out into the world on her own for the first time, but she's weighed down by feelings of guilt. Mary Gordon had been working on the novel for more than four years. She wrote several drafts and tried out several endings. She found an agent through the novelist Margaret Drabble, and the agent suggested that Gordon rewrite the novel in first person instead of third, which she did. When it was finally published, it received great critical reviews, and the paperback version sold a million copies in its first year.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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