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Short story series #2: We’ve been here before

June 20, 2013

Check out the previous post in the series for stuff about short story series you’ve almost certainly heard of, and for my philosophy of short stories, which pretty much boils down to “they’re better when they come by the bookful and are all about the same character.”

These are the stories that I’ve written about here before. They’re in order from least to most awesome, which is not to say that the Our Square stories aren’t pretty good, or that Torchy isn’t a little higher on my list of favorite things ever than Emma McChesney. I mean, I put them in worst-to-best order by accident, and thought I might as well make a note of it.

Our Square

Samuel Hopkins Adams’ fiction is, mostly, ridiculously charming. He’s also occasionally pretty good at feelings (see The Clarion). He has a harder time mixing the two in short story form — what would be adorable or poignant in one of his novels sometimes ends up twee or depressing instead. He’s also hampered by what I guess must be a lack of creativity — I don’t know why else he’d choose to write variations on the same story over and over. Maybe it’s just another of the drawbacks to choosing to do your short story series about a location rather than a person or group of people. Still, overall Adams can’t help being ridiculously charming and occasionally good at feelings, and some of these stories are pretty great. Try “The Guardian of God’s Acre” in From a Bench in Our Square for the feelings and the eponymous “Our Square” in Our Square and the People in it for the first and possibly best iteration of the story Adams writes most often.

Pollyooly

The Pollyooly stories are super weird, funny, and surprisingly unsentimental about children. They also feature one of my favorite things in short story series, an improbably capable central character. And not just at grilling bacon. It’s not just that Pollyooly always lands on her feet — that category also includes characters who are constantly facing various kinds of doom, but manage to escape it somehow. Pollyooly never lets herself get that far — she’s too relentlessly competent for that. Conceptually Pollyooly is just like any other character with her own short story series: visually distinctive, really good at something, and exercising some kind of narrative gravitational pull. But the specifics make her different. She’s strange because she’s so mundane. This is the kind of setup where the beautiful orphan is supposed to be dreamy and imaginative, or bright and cheerful. Instead, Pollyooly is hardheaded, acquisitive, and totally lacking a sense of humor. It’s wonderful. The first stories here are the best, so start reading Pollyooly: a romance of long felt wants and the red haired girl who filled them, and if you’re not enjoying yourself by the time Pollyooly finds employment as an artist’s model, you have my permission to stop. It’s also completely acceptable to skip the final book, Pollyooly Dances, which bears very little relation to the earlier stories.

Torchy

If you’ve read any of my previous posts on the Torchy stories, you’ll have noticed that I don’t know how to write about them at all. Part of it is that I love them unreasoningly. Part of it is that I have to consider the possibility that my intense reaction to them has nothing to do with their actually quality. I mean, maybe they’re not that good. I like them too much to be able to tell. That said, they’re textbook short story series, with a ridiculously resourceful main character, a well-defined and likable cast of characters, a great sense of place and time, and just enough adventure.

There’s basically no Torchy story I don’t recommend, although the last books in the series aren’t as unrelentingly awesome as the earlier ones. Start at the beginning, with Torchy. If at any point you are able to stop, I have nothing to say to you.

Emma McChesney

Emma McChesney is extremely unusual. She’s a woman — a single mother, even — in the 1910s who’s allowed to be ruthless, and smarter than the men around her. She’s also allowed to be sad sometimes, because Edna Ferber finds sad a lot easier than happy — as do many human beings, but few heroines of popular fiction from the 1910s. I know the secondary theme of this post is characters who are excellent at what they do, and no one is better at her ob than Emma McChesney.

Thinking about the Emma McChesney stories doesn’t overwhelm me with feelings the way thinking about Torchy does, but reading them is a perfect experience every time. They’re some of the few books I’ve talked about here that I feel comfortable describing as objectively excellent. It doesn’t even matter what you start with, but chronological continuity is nice, so I recommend Roast Beef, Medium.

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8 comments

  1. Definitely going to read the Emma McChesney stories now, and possibly Pollyooly if I can access the first book through HathiTrust. I hate reading series out of order. But I find Samuel Hopkins Adams’ style tiring after a while. I did like Little Miss Grouch, which you had recommended, but really nothing else by him.

    Have you read E. Nesbit’s short stories? She wrote mostly children’s books like The Railway Children, The Wouldbegoods, and Five Children and It (although my personal favourite is a less-famous novel called The Magic City), but also some novels and short stories for adults. The novels I’ve read are all depressing and I don’t recommend them, but the story collections like Man and Maid and In Homespun are entertaining, mixing sweet romances with stories in her pet genre, the supernatural (not Lovecraftian horror, more like Elizabeth Bowen-y creepiness), as well as Maupassant-like stories with clever denouements.


    • HathiTrust has all of the books from Google Books, doesn’t it? So it will definitely have the first Pollyooly book. (Is there a problem with just getting it from GB?)

      I can absolutely see how you wouldn’t be into Adams’ style, and if you feel that way, his short stories are probably the worst thing to read. Have you tried any of his more serious novels, though?

      I read a lot of E. Nesbit as a kid — although I’m not sure how many, because I always forget what’s Nesbit and what’s Edward Eager. The Railway Children was my favorite, and I don’t think I ever read The Magic City. I’ve steered clear of her books for adults, because based on her political activities I kind of assumed they’d be depressing. But if the short stories are fun, I’ll keep an eye out for them.


      • Read the first Pollyooly book! Through Archive.org–in Google Books I’m not seeing anything to click on that leads to a view of the book, just the information about the book. Maybe it’s not available in Canada through GB? Good thing there’s Archive.org and HathiTrust.

        Love the Honourable John Ruffin’s speechifying. I do like Pollyooly’s resourcefulness and quick thinking, but I’m going to be reading the next books specifically for the amusing Ruffin, so he better be in them.

        I must say I find The Lump kind of weird. Is there something wrong with this kid, that he never talks or acts up? Is he narcoleptic? His affectionate nickname is ironically apt. He’s present to provide an altruistic reason for Pollyooly’s moneymaking shenanigans, but it seems the author couldn’t be bothered to give him a personality.

        The whole setup really reminded me of Amarilly of Clothesline Alley. Amarilly is also a canny, redhaired tween (age 10 or 11 in the first book) with a good head for business and a tendency to be asked to sit as an artist’s model. (How come no philanthropic artists ever stop me in the street and ask me to pose for them?) Unlike Pollyooly, Amarilly is American, the eldest of 8 equally ambitious kids, and still has her mother. The UK/US difference is reflected in their motivations: Pollyooly is saving up just to keep out of the workhouse, whereas Amarilly wants to make enough money to move from the crowded, dirty city to a farm (i.e. upwards from lower to middle class). But the Pollyooly and Amarilly books share the same ambience–in a series of comical misadventures, a determined youngster pulls her family out of poverty through a combination of hard graft, cunning and sheer good fortune. Much funnier than Horatio Alger, and he only ever wrote about boys.

        RE Adams, I believe I read Unspeakable Perk years ago but didn’t love it. Is that what you mean by “serious novels”?


        • Google Books can be weirdly difficult to navigate — so much so that I assume they’re doing on purpose, because there’s no way Google can’t afford some UI designers. The secret is that you have to click on the image of the cover of the book.

          The Lump is super weird, and I think that’s one of the things I like about the Pollyooly books. Like, yes, the Honourable John Ruffin is awesome. But he’s awesome in a way that a lot of fictional characters are awesome. Pollyooly and the Lump are a bit stranger. Amarilly of Clothesline Alley sounds like fun — I’ll check it out.

          So, The Unspeakable Perk might actually be my least favorite thing of Adams’ that I’ve read. It’s also more in a romantic comedy mode, sort of like Little Miss Grouch, only less fun. There’s a lot of Samuel Hopkins Adams I haven’t read, but my experience so far is that trying to be serious about big social issues kind of tones him down, which is nice. If you want to give him another try, maybe check out The Clarion?


          • Alas, have discovered that certain Google Books properties are available only in the US. Which means I probably won’t be able to read the Pollyooly short stories. Sad.

            Lady Marion Ricksborough is like a second Lump. She too is substantial to the narrative yet has no personality of her own. Or maybe she should have been called Lady McGuffin. I just find it odd that Jepson put all this effort into characterization for peripheral figures like Ruffin’s dogged creditors and Hilary Vance’s sly vixens, but expects the reader to accept that a 3-year-old boy and an 11-ish-year-old girl behave like furniture without alarming any doctors.

            May try Adams’ Clarion next, after I read Jepson’s The Terrible Twins. It’s pretty funny so far. Have also read Jepson’s amusing but weird The Admirable Tinker, in which an English loafer’s long-lost young son, rescued from abject neglect, rewards him by turning out absurdly precocious and solving all his problems like a human Puss in Boots.


            • Google Books is terrible in so many ways.

              I think Jepson really just doesn’t know how to write children, and knows it, so the kids in his books are either super weird or nonentities.

              The Admirable Tinker has been on my TBR list for ages without my having any idea what it’s about, but it sounds like lots of fun. I should check that out.


  2. Just finished the Emma McChesney stories.

    Why aren’t these things better known? I’ve heard of Ferber for years – Show Boat, Giant, Ice Palace but I had never heard of these until you recommended Roast Beef, Medium. And I found myself laughing out loud several times.

    It’s not just Emma who is both perfect and not perfect in just the right way – it’s the men. It’s her main competitive rival who plays the piano like Paderewski, it’s her son who has a little too much weasel in him, it’s the women she works with…

    It’s the scary way that some of the things Emma says could have been said by women I know 20 years ago. (Less now, thank God)

    What wonderful books – thank you for recommending them.

    Did you know there was a 1915 silent movie with Ethel Barrymore playing Emma? It’s lost now, but that would be worth seeing.


    • They are so, so great, and I’m glad you enjoyed them. I haven’t read a whole lot of Ferber’s other stuff, but with her non-Emma McChesney books she seems to be trying to balance the happy with the super depressing, and here she manages to be overwhelmingly positive without being fluffy. And I think one of the reasons the characters are so great is that Ferber is fair to everyone. Just thinking about it is making me want to reread.

      Oh man — a silent movie with Ethel Barrymore as Emma sounds amazing.



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