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.