Sunday, August 9, 2015

Four Short Stories Where an Animal's Misfortune Shows Something Toxic About People

Title: Everything in This Country Must
Author: Colum McCann
Where I Read It: The Art of the Story

Katie, the narrator, is a teenager who lives with her father on a farm in Northern Ireland. At the start of the story, their draft horse is stuck in a river and will likely drown. Salvation for the horse might come from a group of British soldiers passing by, but what will Katie's father choose - the horse's life or a burden of bitter gratitude to the despised soldiers? From the beginning of the story, all hope seems to have drowned. Katie's father can't imagine a world without grief, a world where even an inadequate reparation or artless act of kindness is possible.

Title: In the Zoo
Author: Jean Stafford
Where I Read It: The Granta Book of the American Short Story

Two orphaned sisters come to live with their grandmother's friend, Mrs. Placer, who runs a boarding house. The atmosphere in the house is poisonous, full of suspicion and malice. Mrs. Placer and the boarders talk about everyone in town in the worst light. They don't see good in other people; they like to puncture people's happiness and go out of their way to find petty motives even in kinder acts. The story shows the children marinating in this toxic environment.

Some escape might come from Mr. Murphy, a man who spends his days drinking and looking after a small menagerie. He gives the sisters a puppy one day, a bit of innocence and warmth in Mrs. Placer's house. The girls call the dog Laddy, and he becomes their companion. However, Mrs. Placer gets the idea that Laddy could be retrained as a fierce guard dog. With harsh tactics, she turns the dog violent and calls him Caesar.

What the dog eventually does, and what happens to him, is the most obvious example of the kind of corruption and deformation that Mrs. Placer brings about. What she does to the girls is more subtle. Hers is a steady drip of poison.

Title: Puppy
Author: George Saunders
Where I Read It: The Book of Other People

There's a puppy at the heart of this story, and his survival depends on two people understanding each other. One is the puppy's current owner, a woman living in a mess of poverty, ignorance, good intentions and violence. The other is a prospective buyer, a woman who currently has a more stable, dignified life and wants to give her children a pet. The puppy is a mute character, sidelined. Though he's the one whose life hangs in the balance, he takes second place to the human drama - the quick judgments, the incomprehension and horror.

Title: The Silent Traders
Author: YĆ«ko Tsushima
Translator: Geraldine Harcourt
Where I Read It: Mothers & Daughters

With her two young children, a woman has returned to the neighborhood where she grew up. Near her home there's an overgrown park, pleasant to visit, but also a source of mystery and unease. Cats have proliferated there. The woman remembers how, during her childhood, people would abandon pets in that park. All those unwanted animals dumped among the trees.

The park's a place where people get rid of what's messy in their life. But they can still imagine their pets thriving, leading fantasy lives in a magical wood. (Or maybe facing horrors in the dark.) The park is full of possibility. And the animals in it, cast aside, resonate with the woman in the story - as she and her children are also a mess in someone's life, a complication that needs to be put out of sight.