Scarily, sometimes there is no way out, an example of which is delivered in this raw encounter with the grim facts of life in “Horse Sense,” by our very own Jilanne Hoffmann. We hope this story soon finds a home, because it packs a wallop you won’t want to miss, dealing with the cruelty of making choices where the only good choices are bad ones. Meanwhile, here’s a teaser and our thoughts on the story. Yes, it’s dogfight time, and as always, your comments are appreciated!
“Got another for you,” he said. “What happens when your Grandmother leaves alphabet soup on the stove too long?”
“What?” I asked and grinned with anticipation.
“It spells disaster,” said Gramp, his poker face completely blank.
I rolled my eyes again.
“One more,” he said. “How can marriage be both a word and a sentence?”
“Don’t feed that child beer!” Gram yelled again.
In the years since my parents died, Gram had ruled my days until canning season started. Then Gramp took over, though his form of supervision was usually not up to her standards.
“She’s almost thirteen, not two,” Gramp muttered and swiped the back of his hand across his mouth. Then he yelled, “How’re those pies of yours a coming, Nettie?”
Gram tossed an exasperated shake of her apron out the door and returned to her baking.
“Always got to keep the cat distracted,” said Gramp, “if you’re ever to be successful in this life.”
“What’s the answer?” I asked.
“The answer to what?”
“To the question,” I said. “You know, about marriage.”
“Annie, some answers you just have to wait and experience for yourself.”
Hey, Jil: This story has stuck with me since I read a very early version of it some time back, and it has been very fun to see different versions of this story over time—and this is quite the strongest version yet. In this version, you’ve done a lot of great work to elucidate both who the characters are and the choices that the girl Annie makes. Both the learning to smoke scene with grandpa and the final scene/her final choice are riveting, as we watch this girl plunging into her own confused despair, guided by a flawed role model she nonetheless loves. It’s killing me to avoid commenting too much about her choices and give the ending away, so I’ll just say that the final image is one of the most hauntingly devastating endings I’ve read. Of course, that means I loved it!
It would be interesting to consider adding another agenda for Annie’s summer—does she have to have a job in town, or do we actually see her “working” for grandma and it’s her job to deliver canning jars and pies all over town, and that the moments with grandpa are sneaked in between the other stuff she has to do. Right now we seem to get a one-sided view of her days, without knowing exactly what else she does with the rest of her day—or what else she is rebelling against. We’re told she tries hard to be unlike grandma and the other women in town, but I think we need to be shown that side of the story so that her choice to side with grandpa has something against which to be compared. Who are these shadowy other women who defer to convention? That’s the kind of woman grandma seems determined to create but we don’t actually see any of that attempted molding, so the rebellion against what we don’t see is slightly undercut.
It’s complex, because neither choice presented to Annie is ideal, so we see her choose perhaps the lesser of two evils that is in actuality the greater of two evils. What is the other image she holds in her mind to contrast to the image of destroyed lungs? A sad-faced, exhausted woman dutifully sitting beside her husband in church with their gaggle of kids she may or may not have wanted? Or closer to home, grandma amidst her rows and rows of perfect canning jars? Canning by its nature is both dangerous yet banks on the future, whereas smoking with grandpa is in the moment and seems sexy.
The prose, by the way, are simply exquisite. In being hard on the story, it’s easy to skip over how beautifully rendered each scene is—from the image of the horse tank to the flowers on the wallpaper. Thanks for another look at this terrific story. I hope future readers love and agonize over this story as much as I did.
XO Laurel Leigh
An orphaned 13 year-old girl, living on a farm with her grandparents, wiles away the long, hot afternoons one summer eating cookies and drinking beer with her grandfather. That, in a nutshell, is a basic reading of your story, ‘Horse Sense.’ But there is oh so much more going on in this story. And the stakes are so much higher than they sound.
This is a supremely powerful story that, on the surface, seems to glide over the surface of a series of hot summer days on a farm in the Midwest. But underneath there is a disturbing undertow.
It is not overstatement in the least to say that the grandparents of the story are quite literally waging war for the very soul of their granddaughter, Annie.
The grandfather, known as Gramp, is the teller of jokes and the wild, thrilling voice of irresponsibility and abandon. While Gram, the grandmother, is the voice of reason and responsibility. Of course there is no question which is the more appealing — the ‘sexier’ — voice to a 13 year-old girl on the cusp of full-blown adolescence.
What is interesting for me are the reasons Gramp himself gives for why he tells Annie to thumb her nose at genteel civility and conventional wisdom.
‘Never go for the obvious,’ Gramp tells his granddaughter, ‘and never jump to conclusions.’ Which, were it not for the circumstances, would be excellent advice for any grandfather to give his granddaughter.
There seems to be no question that Gramp loves Annie; but for a man well past retirement age to get smashed each afternoon and encourage his teenage granddaughter to drink and to smoke right along with him — such circumstances do undercut, somewhat, the relative wisdom of the advice he is trying to give her.
Everybody has their reasons. Every story ever told only proves this old axiom. Gramp certainly has his reasons, or thinks he does, for acting in such an irresponsible manner. And Gram too has her reasons for trying to counteract the malign influence Gramp is exerting over their granddaughter, but at the same time not trying too hard. Chief among these being guilt.
Gramp is a thwarted man, thwarted in life and thwarted in love. And Gram does seem to bear some responsibility for Gramp’s sense of defeat. But Gram also clearly sees she must provide some countervailing influence upon her wayward granddaughter. It’s not her fault that she is a grim, tongue-clucking noodge.
As presented, the battle between Gramp and Gram over what kind of person Annie will grow up to be is over before it ever started.
Gramp, as the one who encourages risk-taking and rule-breaking, is going to win the argument every time. And while I think Gram, as presented, feels real, feels like a woman from that specific place and time, I also think she needs a little help from the author if she is ever going to present any kind counterbalance to Gramp, who swamps the story with his charm and impish sense of humor.
If Gram were to have even one scene where she and Annie interact in a way that Annie can at least see where her grandmother is coming from, it would make the ending seem a little less like such a foregone conclusion.
That being said, the way you finally bring this story home feels powerful and true to me. More importantly it feels inevitable, which is all anyone can ask from a story that satisfies and stays with you long after you have read it.
Super job, Jil! A powerful story beautifully told!