When reading short stories, I find it helpful to approach the reading on two levels. First, as a form of entertainment. I enjoy reading and find short stories to be great form for when I have time constraints. Second, I approach reading short stories as a learning experience. If you’re a writer, you need to understand why a story does or doesn’t work. How is the writer applying a technique. What makes the style work. Just because something is published in The New Yorker, doesn’t mean it’s a good story. I actually dislike that term, “a good story.” What makes a good story? It can be pretty subjective. What I like is that there are people who love to write and they take the time to write. I may think their work is flawed and find it unenjoyable, but I still respect their commitment to art.
Louise Erdrich‘s story, “The Years of My Birth,” for me, falls into the pit of predictability and melodrama. I won’t spend too much time on it, except to give a brief account of how this happens. The story opens with twins separated at birth. The daughter has a deformity and is spurned by her natural parents. Guess that was legal back then. A janitor, who is Native American, fosters the baby and raises her as part of the janitor’s family. Decades pass. At this point, we know the natural family will get back in touch with the girl. That’s how these stories go, right? Her birth mother calls her out of the blue to catch up. At this point, I’m thinking, the mom wants something. I bet there’s a disease with her son, the other twin. I expect to predict events in movies like Indiana Jones or Stieg Larsson novels, and I’m always disappointed when I can predict things in “literary fiction.” Another term I dislike. The twin needs a kidney. Linda, the daughter, has decided to donate her kidney. Melodrama enters like a sheepish houseguest and throws it’s coat on the couch. Anyone want to hang out for the rest of the story? Erdrich, to her credit, tries to pull away at the ending, but it’s too late, the damage has been done and the story falls short of the mark.