Thursday, January 06, 2011

Short-a-Day: Louise Erdrich's "The Years of My Birth"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Jan. 10, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 72.

An original series of images -- a fifty-year-old's recollection of her deformed birth as a surprise twin, her subsequent abandonment, and adoption and remolding by a caring janitor from the nearby reservation -- devolves at the very last moment into something about redemption and the true meaning of beauty. Erdrich reaches deep, but the lines she comes up with are empty thoughts: "Before we were born, my twin had had the compassion to crush me, to improve me by deforming me: I was the one who was spared." And the final section of the story works to surprise us with the twin's unrelenting cruelty ("I don't want your kidney," he says. "I don't want a piece of you inside me.") only to leave us dangling with our narrator's reaction: "I tried to get away from him, to get to the door, but instead I backed up against the wall and was stuck there in that white, white room."

Throughout the story, and with the title, Erdrich has teased us with the idea that something connects these fraternal twins; the solid flashbacks of her first eleven years involve a ghostly presence that Tuffy (her nickname) now identifies as her brother, caring for her, grieving with her, from afar. But the ending, with its womb-sounding "room," appears to throw that away, and for all the meticulous building-up of Tuffy's life, her optimism and witty observations (for instance, hanging the phone up on her mother is essentially abandoning the caller in the cradle, a reversal of what her mother did to her), all that vanishes in an instant.

Still, there's a very solid foundation, with lines like these: "I don't remember being held as something special. Which tells me that I must have been held so often that the sensation became a part of me, inseparable from my memory of the world." And Erdrich gets a lot packed into those first three pages, from the way her foster sister scorns her for being "white" (deformed or not, she still has a racial "advantage" that leads to resentment) to the way she transitions -- molding more and more as the story continues -- into something approximating happiness, even if it's not the kind we would initially recognize.

1 comment:

Esther said...

Well I did like this story better than the last one. At least a lot happens and the main characters are more fully drawn. Although I thought the surprise in the plot was a little Lifetime movie-ish. Also, didn't they do this on Lost, where Locke's long-lost father reconnects in order to get his kidney? It's not an original plot device. Still, there are some very beautiful sentences, like the one about being held. Overall, it held my interest.