February 08, 2011

Short Stories with Enigmatic Settings

This past week I read two very captivating short stories, both written around the same time, but by writers who lived continents apart. “The Fight at Lonesome Grove” by Jesse Stuart and “If I Forget Thee Oh Earth” by Arthur C. Clarke are two very disparate stories belonging to two different genres and with settings that are planets and centuries apart. Not a fan of the short story genre, I admittedly was captivated by these stories, and it had to do a lot with their setting.

Jesse Stuart’s story introduced me to a completely new side of the USA; schooling in rural Kentucky and West Virginia in the early 1900s. At a time when children were not mandated to attend school, classrooms had students varying from the age of 8 to 18, teachers in rural districts did not need credentials to become educators, students could be older in age than their teachers, and amenities such as drinking water and electricity were not available in classrooms. Set against this backdrop, Stuart's story unravels a piece of history; his own experience as a very young teacher in a rural school district in Kentucky. The story, though simple, has a profound message in it for every reader whose life has been transformed by a teacher, and for every educator who dreams of being a 'true teacher'. However, it wasn't the message as much as the setting and the depiction of the ordinary day to day activities within a rural school district that fascinated me as a reader. Stuart's portrayal gave rise to several questions in the reader's mind such as : How could parents not send their children to school? Why would a student want to beat up his teacher, and why would the others simply stand by and watch? Why would any reasonably educated and smart person want to teach in a rural setting that lacked basic amenities such as water and electricity, and where education was clearly not a priority? Jesse Stuart’s story is an engrossing read that is also very informative of the time period in which it is set. I would recommend it to those who enjoy reading about how we were, when we were not what we are today.

Arthur C. Clarke’s “If I Forget Thee Oh Earth..” is a famous short story in the Science Fiction genre. The setting is in an unknown time in the future, on an unknown planet sometime after the earth’s Armageddon due to a nuclear holocaust. Told from a partially third person narrative, the story is about a father who takes his teenage son, Marvin, on a ‘pilgrimage’ to ‘pass on the dream’ of returning ‘home’ one day. The settings of ‘home’ and ‘exile’ take on ironic significance in the story where ‘a home’ burns up in phosphorescence’ and an ‘exile’ is maintained and serviced with utmost care. Arthur Clark’s story “If I Forget Thee Oh Earth” is evidence to the popular belief that science fiction always addresses the present even while it embeds itself in a potential distant future. Another captivating read by Clark that transports the reader into a strange setting that's both a 'haven' and an 'inferno' .