Short story series #2: We’ve been here beforeJune 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.
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.
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.
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 actual quality. I mean, maybe they’re not that good. I like them too much to be able to tell. That said, this is a 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 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 job 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.