Ursula Vernon short stories

I recently discovered Vernon’s work through a friend’s enthusiastic review of “Jackalope Wives.” When she followed it up with a review of “The Tomato Thief,” I couldn’t resist temptation. I absolutely loved “The Tomato Thief,” a perfect story for the end of the year.

Mixing Native mythology with classic fairytales and the rise of the railroad can have lovely results. For a few moments, on New Years’ Eve, in the cold and dark north, I was in the hot, dry desert, baking in the sun.

“I need your old mule,” Grandma Harken told him. “The one I like to ride.”
Tomas looked at her, gazed briefly heavenward, and said, “That mule died five years ago, Abuela Harken.”
Grandma blinked. “What’d he die of?”
“Old age,” said Tomas, who was always extremely respectful but had a sense of humor anyway.”

Truly, an engrossing little story full of all my favorite elements: determination, magic, women tough as sinew, humor and a feeling of a tale as old as people. I read through a number of other reviews and suspect that what some reviewers are missing is a familiarity with both Native myths and with a particular classic fairy tale. If you are familiar with the latter, Vernon’s transformation of it in the New World is clever and enjoyable. It’s been a while since I read various Native mythology, but world origin myths are particularly… different, and I suspect don’t necessarily translate well conceptually. There’s a section in this that reminds me of those. At any rate, a fabulous, multi-layered little read.

Still, I disagree with Grandma on the value of a fresh tomato sandwich.


I sought out more of her work, and found Vernon’s website, which helpfully lists and links many of her short stories. Pocosin,” the story of a woman living in an isolated, swampy location, was my least favorite. It has the shades of Grandma Harken from the other works, but feels less developed. In it, Maggie is trying to peacefully mind her own business when an injured Possum God intrudes on her porch. Intriguing hints of Maggie’s past were not elaborated, and made some of the confrontations less meaningful than I think Vernon meant them to be. Still, the writing remains something intriguing, particularly the evocative opening line: “This is the place of the carnivores, the pool ringed with sundews and the fat funnels of the pitcher plants.”


I ventured on to “Wooden Feathers.” Once again I found that establishment of normalcy that ventures into surrealism. In this one, a woman who sells duck carvings is puzzled by a shabby old man who continues to by her models. There’s a few off notes here, specifically, why the old man would share his work, but part of the magic of fairy tales is that there isn’t always a reason for the magic. Wording is quite nice, solid description that is at turns bare bones and at other times ornate.  The moon was the eye of an ink-dark whale overhead, barnacled with stars.”

“Sarah’s favorite was a walrus. It was snow white, with a blue saddle, and its tusks were scrimshawed with starfish and ships. Its lumpy, bristly face was screwed up in a grin of delight. In the photo, a little girl had her arms as far around it as they could go, and she was grinning too.”


The last one was “Razorback,” the story of a rural witch who found a kind of solid companionship in a friendly hog. Not quite as lyrical, it has a familiar lead; a strong, stubborn, isolated woman of power. I appreciate the acknowledgement that there are risks in that position, and that certain men will always see outliers as prey. A moving sort of romance and a nice twist to a traditional sort of cost-situation. There’s interesting self-referential remarks about the various interpretations locals have put on the tale.


Her works recall both the history and the culture of fairy tales at the same time that they’ve been modernized and transformed into a recognizable and current setting. And while she does that, she works with a complex of emotions, those feelings of pride, disappointment, compassion. I’ll keep my eye out for her works.


About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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14 Responses to Ursula Vernon short stories

  1. neotiamat says:

    Not sure if you’ve run across them, but she’s written several excellent novels as well. Basically the same style/approach as her short stories, but longer (she uses the pen name T. Kingfisher, since as Ursula Vernon she’s mostly known as a children’s author). Absolutely adore them.

    • thebookgator says:

      Yeah, I see she is one I’m really going to have to include on my radar. I had noted the Kingfisher reviews but put them aside as they sounded a little too fairy-tale like for my reading mood these days. Still, love her style. I can see why you would adore them.

  2. imyril says:

    I loved The Tomato Thief, but I quite liked Pocosin too (although not as much; Grandma Harken has my heart). I’m very excited to read her new story this month.

  3. You know I love T. Kingfisher, another nom de plume of Ursula Vernon’s. Wonderful story-teller. I will have to read some of her stories written as Ursula Vernon.

    • thebookgator says:

      It might be your reviews of Kingfisher that I keep noticing–I do know she pops up in my friends’ reviews. The Vernon shorts seem thematically similar. Wonder what her intention is there in separating out names?

      • neotiamat says:

        I can answer this! I was following Ursula Vernon before it was cool! *hipster*

        Anyway, originally she was a graphic artist and painter who gradually moved into webcomics (won a Hugo for one of ’em) and thence into short stories and, among other things, children’s books+illustration. And one of the latter, a series called Hamster Princess, apparently blew up. So now Ursula Vernon’s own name is associated with children’s books. Thus, she/her editors/agents decided that when she writes adult stuff that will appear in actual bookstores, she uses a nom de plume, so as not to accidentally confuse parents. This is not followed very rigorously though (I assume that a parent who picks up Pocosin or Apex will not suddenly decide it’s a kid’s story just because Vernon is in it).

      • thebookgator says:

        Wait, are you saying I’m cool? Unheard of…
        The name changes make perfect sense in relation to all those other works. Interesting, she doesn’t feel like the other visual artists I’ve read (not many, admittedly, but still…). Thank you for the additional insight!

  4. Olga Godim says:

    I loved The Tomato Chief. Actually I loved everything I’ve read by her, under both her names, but I haven’t read some of her short stories. Thanks for the info. I’m going to log in to her site and seek out stories I haven’t read.

  5. neotiamat says:

    Even when she was ‘just’ an artist, she tended to write little mini-stories to her paintings, which half the time ended up more popular than the painting (a sampling below). So… it was a logical progression.


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