Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Short-a-Day: Anne-E Wood's "Song of Winter"

Originally published in Two If By Sea (2006). Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 87.

Writing in a first-person child's voice isn't easy, but Wood nails it, sticking with short, declarative sentences and subbing in whimsical descriptions: "My mother had a weeping-bathing habit" or "He was not a crier like my mother. He was a sitter-smoker." The simplicity of the presentation belies the complexity of what's going on--or maybe speaks truth to how simple our relationships really are, when you boil away the pomp and circumstance that we adults make out of it. After all, what could be more innocently clearer than this: "Gino Ronconni was my father and he lost his job when I was thirteen. He did not look for a new one." Still, though the voice--and the dialogue that accompanies it--works, the story itself doesn't quite hold up.

There's too much Louis doesn't understand and consequently, that he doesn't ask about. And what he does address--like how "The man my mother slept with now didn't look like anyone I'd ever met"--winds up being dismissed. Instead, the father's madness takes over: he goes without sleeping for weeks on end, eventually reverts to a feral, dog-like state, and then, after showing up again, we get this: "My mother and Ronconni slept together again and he stopped spending entire days in the kitchen." Time and again, Wood drops haunting bombshells--quite effective in this clipped tone--but she never deals with the aftermath. The conclusion, in particular, feels too scenic, with Louis's brother--Mikey--wandering in to his room in the middle of the night because he's freezing. You can take the ribs-as-icicles or "the whole house was freezing" lines as a metaphor for the coldness that remains in the house, or use it as a way to understand why Louis loves winter--it brings people together for the shared heat. ("Anything but fall. Fall was the worst. Fall came with everything bad. School and leaves and bad news.")

The story will be too detached for some: we don't really know why anybody acts the way they do in this story. We only know that they do. But then again, that's the simplicity/complexity of life, and can a good story ever find a way to tiptoe through that jungle?

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