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Saturday, October 11, 2008

Flowering Judas and Other Stories

Flowering Judas and Other Stories is a collection of Katherine Anne Porter’s twelve earliest short stories (written in the 1920s and 1930s), many of which are set in Mexico, and all of which are memorable for their realistic insights into the human condition. These stories were all included in 1965's The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter, the book that won her both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award and marked the apex of her reputation.

Several of the stories are set in Mexico during its revolutionary period from 1910 to the early 1920s, stories told largely from the points-of-view of ordinary Mexicans and American expatriates who find themselves caught up in the struggle. These include “Virgin Violetta,” “The Martyr” and the book’s first story, “ Maria Concepcion.”

“Maria Concepcion” is typical of the “Mexico stories” in the sense that the revolution serves as the backdrop for a story that does not delve into the politics of that fight. Rather, this is the story of a young Mexican peasant woman who temporarily loses her husband to an even younger woman who is willing to follow him into battle. Maria’s story is that of a woman fierce enough to reclaim what his hers when the opportunity finally offers itself, a woman so fierce that even the authorities respect her passion enough to allow her to get away with what she does.

But my favorite stories from this collection are not the Mexico stories. The ones that appeal to me the most are the deceptively simple ones that focus on the relationship between husbands and wives. These are largely conversational presentations that wonderfully illustrate how much is left unsaid between husband and wife, stories in which inner thoughts are detailed inside the heads of her characters but never expressed out loud to each other during their long conversations.

Two stories of this type particularly stand out for me: “Rope” and “The Cracked Looking Glass.” “Rope” tells of the tensions between a woman and her husband that have been exaggerated by his decision to move them deep into the country to begin a new life, one which neither of them is prepared to live in that kind of isolation. When her husband returns from town one afternoon with a long length of rope coiled on his back, she is outraged to see that he has used their almost nonexistent savings to buy something they do not need. Their conversation is revealing; what they think but do not say to each other offers the real truth in their relationship.

“The Cracked Looking Glass” explores another marriage, this one between an older man and a woman not yet prepared to settle into the lifestyle that his age demands. As in “Rope,” what these two people say to each other is only part of their story. Their real character and the truths of their marriage are not generally expressed out loud by either of them, and the reader, for a while, comes to know more about the health of that marriage than do either of the parties involved.

Katherine Anne Porter does not seem to be as appreciated today as she once was and that is a shame because, as this collection so aptly illustrates, she is one of the finest short story writers in the history of American literature.

Rated at: 4.0
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