Cynthia Ozick “The Shawl” – This is a deeply sad story about a mother, Rosa, and her teenage daughter Stella and infant daughter Magda as they are forced by Nazis to travel on foot towards an unknown destination, nearly starved to death. Once in the death camp, Magda – who is so malnourished it’s amazing she is alive – learns to walk. Rosa gives Magda all her food and hides her in the barracks. The shawl becomes her security blanket and the baby screams when her freezing sister takes it from her for warmth. Rosa swipes the shawl back from Stella, but it is too late. The Nazis have found Magda and threw the baby into the electrified fence. What struck me most in this story, other than the horrific violence, was the word choice – all of which suggested death. Rosa said the hunger made her feel like “a floating angel” (602). That she and Stella were “turning into the air” (603).
Bobbie Ann Mason “Big Bertha Stories” – Donald is a miner in Kentucky who often leaves his wife Jeannette and son Rodney for long stretches of time with no good reason for it. Despite this, his family always welcomes him home, when he decides he wants to be there. As the story moves along, we learn that Donald is suffering from the after-effects of the Vietnam War – something Jeannette has trouble understanding. The Big Bertha of the title is a fictional character who stars in the tall tales that Donald tells Rodney. She comes to represent for the two anything faceless or nameless in the world that brings pain and suffering, whether it be Vietnam or bad dreams that send Rodney to the closet. Eventually, Donald agrees to get treatment at the VA hospital and Jeannette tries to get along with her life without him. I liked that there was some dark humor in this story. Lines like describing Donald’s treatment of his family as being like “an absentee landlord” (655) or saying he chooses his sunglasses to match those worn by the Blues Brothers when “he in no way resembles either of the Blues Brothers” (656).
Tim O’Brien “The Things They Carried” – This short story is about a group of soldiers in Vietnam. One of them, Jimmy Cross, alternates between describing life in the war zone and thinking back to Martha, the girl he left behind who was never really his. Now that they are apart, he wishes he’d been closer to her. Although as the horrors of the war weigh down on him, his memories of her turn ugly rather than overly romanticized. The “things” mentioned in the title are shown to not only be the physical equipment and weaponry the men needed to take into battle, but also the emotions they carried with them. In one passage, O’Brien even talks about the way they carried themselves: “For the most part they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity” (649). But when in a panic it was not unusual for a solider to make “moaning sounds and covered their heads and said Dear Jesus and flopped around on the earth” (649). To me, that shows the truer side of a war.
James Baldwin “Sonny’s Blues” – This is a story about a young teacher whose brother, Sonny, is in jail for heroin possession. Sonny is an addict and we learn that his father was an alcoholic. Sonny’s unnamed brother keeps thinking back to the days after their mother died when Sonny was still in high school and starting to hang out in the jazz scene and most likely doing drugs. Sonny wants to be a jazz musician and his brother wants him to study and learn, which causes tension and eventually, the two brothers drift apart and Sonny ends up in jail. His brother tries to reconnect after the death of his daughter, Gracie. The two men go to a jazz club together when Sonny gets out of jail and the brother hears Sonny play for the first time. The song explains so much to his brother. “Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life,” the brother explains, adding “I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth” (439).