Time and Place: Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” (2003)

Fewer than 500 words.

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I am a firm believer in the adage, “Form follows function,” and thus if a device is present in a story, it must serve a good purpose.

Sherman Alexie’s short story, “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” begins with a time indication—“Noon” (8)—and we soon find that the time structure is vindicated because the plot and climax depend on it. More than three pages go by before the next time indication—“1 p.m.” (12)—shows up. By that time (no pun intended), we’ve nearly forgotten about the time structure. What reminds us of it shortly before this transition, though, is the conflict that has arisen: the main character, a homeless Native American in Washington named Jackson Jackson (sic), must find $999 by noon the next day to purchase his grandmother’s stolen ceremonial regalia from a pawnbroker. Otherwise, the deal’s off (12). The clock is ticking, and the time structure becomes the device driving the story. This lets us ruminate upon Alexie’s second device: place.

Alexie identifies the places, or settings, in which Jackson finds himself within the prose, instead of tacked alongside the time indication. That’s because Jackson moves between a few places within most of the time slots. Time is the story’s driving factor (nothing tenser than a clock counting down!) but place becomes the story’s tapestry.

We see everything from a 7-11, to a pawnbroker’s shop, to an alley, to a newspaper publisher, to a Korean grocery store, to a bar, and back to the pawnbroker’s shop (and I’m sure I missed one or two). That’s a lot to cover in one story! But that’s the life—we assume—of a homeless man. If we tie that to Jackson’s Native American heritage (whose Spokane ancestors lived there thousands of years before [Alexie 8]), we can think of Jackson living out that stereotypical concept of the wandering Indian living off the land, such as the land is now.

Jackson’s story is a time-driven quest through his native land in search of redemption. There are helpers along the way, like the Big Boss at the publishing house and the good cop Officer Williams, but Jackson is his own worst enemy: every dollar that goes in goes right back out; and yet, he never gives up the search.

Finally, time and place collide as Jackson returns to the pawnbroker. We understand that the pawnbroker’s shop might itself be part of the mythos of this Indian’s quest, for it is not where Jackson remembers it, and no one seems to have heard of it (Alexie 27). He wanders and wanders, and then finds it right in the nick of time. But he doesn’t have the money. The pawnbroker accepts $5—a different $5 than Jackson started with (28)—because it wasn’t about the money at all. It was about the quest.

We are often willing to forgive the hero his sins, overlook his self-bloodied soul, and pardon his empty-handedness if, in the end, he arrives at the right time and the right place.

My review: This is my first introduction to Alexie’s work, although I have heard of him before. I appreciated the honesty and clarity with which this story was written. Cultural-driven literature is not my preference (although one could argue that all literature is culture-driven and it only seems not to be when it’s your own culture), but when a writer makes it accessible—that is, when a writer does not rely on guilt to “move” the reader—I truly appreciate it. I enjoyed this story.

Favorite quotes:

  • “I didn’t break hearts into pieces overnight. I broke them slowly and carefully.” (8)
  • “I love the smell of ocean water. Salt always smells like memory.” (13)
  • “‘Just like a man,’ she said. ‘You love money and power more than you love me.’ ¶ ‘It’s true,’ I said. ‘And I’m sorry it’s true.’” (17)

Work Cited

Alexie, Sherman. “What You Pawn I Will Redeem.” The Seagull Reader: Stories. 2nd ed., edited by Joseph Kelly, United States, W.W. Norton, 2008, pp. 8-28.

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Strolling Through a Story: Sarah Orne Jewett’s “The Hiltons’ Holiday” (1895)

Spoiler Alert: All story reviews will assume the reader has read the story. Click here to read the story free.

(A quick note: It is currently December 2018. I wrote this essay back in March 2015 but never published it. For reasons many and various, my blogging dwindled from that time until now. I’m back at it, with several more essays written in that first half of 2015 that will be posted in the coming weeks.)

It is a common assertion among fiction writers that there must be conflict if one dares to write a story. Generally, I agree with this assertion, but it doesn’t always have to be true. Art reaffirms life, and life is not always about conflict. Depending on when and where one grows up, life is more often about simple moments and enjoyable exploration. In her short story, “The Hiltons’ Holiday,” Sarah Orne Jewett demonstrates how a story can be a gentle stroll, rather than a tense clash of values. Yet, despite lacking a plot and a central conflict, it is nevertheless engaging.

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Source: Wikipedia

As plotless as a story can be, “The Hiltons’ Holiday” is, in a sense, nothing more than the title suggests: John Hilton and his daughters go on a holiday. The Hiltons are farmers, including John Hilton, his wife, and his two daughters, Katy and Sarah Ellen. John and his wife sit on their porch one evening talking about their daughters, who are at the new schoolteacher’s home for a fun gathering. John says he wants his daughters to see more of the world than just the farm: “I want ‘em to know the world, an’ not stay right here on the farm like a couple o’ bushes” (Jewett 148). He wants to take them to the nearby town of Topham for a day so they can see a slice of the larger world. His wife agrees and they make plans for the next day. John takes his daughters into town. Along the 17-mile road they traverse via horse-and-wagon, John stops and talks with several neighbors. This makes the girls anxious to get to town, yet the journey itself is exciting: “[Katy] liked to see the strange houses, and the children who belonged to them; it was delightful to find flowers that she knew growing all along the road, no matter how far she went from home” (152). Finally, they arrive in town. They meet old Judge Masterson, a friend of John’s mother when they were children. Meeting a man whom their own father regards highly, the girls are awed. Again, for Katy it is a memorable experience: “For the first time in her life the child had felt the charm of manners; perhaps she owned a kinship between that which made him what he was and the spark of nobleness and purity in her own simple soul” (155). Afterward, the Hiltons visit another friend of John’s, they pick flowers, and they buy candy and a new hat for John in local stores, all of them feeling that “[i]t was a famous day” (155). They return home and regale John’s wife—the daughters’ mother—with tales of the holiday, and the story ends, simply, with life moving on with a pleasant memory behind them and the hope of an exciting future ahead. The story is as plotless and without conflict as any story can be. Yet it is thrilling. How did Jewett make it so?

To answer that question, it is important that we identify this story as what it is, a milieu story. Science fiction and fantasy author Orson Scott Card encourages writers to use the “MICE quotient” to determine what kind of story they will write: Milieu, Idea, Character, or Event (76). All of these types of stories will include elements of the other, but will focus chiefly on the chosen type. A character story, therefore, shows a character’s development, and other elements like ideas or events are designed around that central aspect of the story. If the story is about an event, then the purpose of characters is not necessarily to change (though they might), but to be eyes and ears through which readers can experience the event. A milieu story, however, is not so often used in literary fiction. This story structure focuses on the world of the story: the land, the people, the laws, the culture, etc. A reader wanders through the world for no other reason than to be amazed. Fantasy writers often use this technique. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, for example, is a milieu story: most of the trilogy is about the characters simply seeing amazing things. The conflict, character development, and events are important and well handled, but the chief purpose of the story is to explore the milieu of Middle Earth. On a far less epic, but no less valid, scale, Jewett hands us a milieu story in “The Hiltons’ Holiday.”

Remember, this story occurs in the late 1800s when Americans were still taming the Wild West. The Hiltons might be farmers who acquired land via the Homestead Act: “Each small homestead looked its best and pleasantest” (Jewett 152). Topham Corners might be one of the many railroad towns that sprung up after the end of the Civil War, where “corners” suggests that several roads lead to it from rural farms. Several pages of the story are dedicated to describing the sights, sounds, smells, and people that the Hiltons encounter during their holiday in Topham Corners: “In the chief business street of Topham a great many country wagons like the Hiltons’ were fastened to posts, and there seemed to our holiday-makers to be a great deal of noise and excitement” (155). It is a town bustling with activity, but does this mean the story is without conflict?

In a structural sense, yes, there is absolutely no conflict in the story. In an historical sense, however, no: consider what it takes for these farmers to take a holiday. Consider John’s thoughts on the matter, even though it was his idea: “The magnitude of the plan for taking a whole day of pleasure confronted him seriously” (Jewett 150). Before they left, John awoke before five in the morning and milked the cows, at the very least taking care of that chore. Then he comes up with at least three “excuses” to go into town: get a new straw hat, buy a new farm hoe, and buy some turnip seeds for planting. Finally, the Hiltons must journey 17 miles over dirt trails via horse and wagon, a time-consuming part of their day; of course, later, they must also travel 17 miles home. So, the underlying conflict of this story is easy to forget, but important to remember: it was no simple thing back then to take a holiday. But John felt it was important for his daughters. Though they might be content on the farm, he says, “I don’t know’s bein’ contented is all there is to look for in a child. Ambition’s somethin’ to me” (148). It works, too: Katy, whom we might say is the central focus of the story, is awed by Topham Academy, where her grandmother went to school and where, John tells her, she might go to school one day as well; Judge Masterson charms Katy; and the girls enjoy the pleasures the town has to offer. Jewett helps us feel their excitement as they enjoy their holiday. By the story’s end, we’re inclined to agree with Mrs. Hilton, who says, “You an’ the little girls have had a great time. They was full o’ wonder to me about everythin’, and I expect they’ll talk about it for a week. I guess we was right about havin’ ‘em see somethin’ more o’ the world” (158). That’s it. That’s the story’s purpose and theme, carried with never an ounce of plot or real conflict. And it was delightful.

It is true that, generally, stories need conflict to be worth reading. However, it is also true that, sometimes, we need to stop and smell the flowers, and relish in a world all its own, a world to which we are new, which shines brightly and smells sweetly, and in which men are “honest as daylight” (Jewett 149). Settling America’s Western frontier was one of the most challenging events in human history, yet even then, there were simple pleasures to enjoy. Let’s be like Katy: let’s see the world with fresh eyes full of ambition.

My review: I was surprised at how much I enjoyed such a plotless, carefree story. It helped to remember the difficulties those pioneers faced on a daily basis, so one has to bring in one’s own knowledge of history and circumstance to recreate fully the setting of this story (remember playing Oregon Trail as a kid?). Jewett built excitement in the reader by showing how excited the characters were. She uses a lot of dialogue to develop her characters, which was appropriate. I hope to encounter more stories like this in the future, where I can simply relax and relish in the joy of a beautiful place well described—but I hope such stories are few and far between, because, after all, I prefer plot and conflict.

Favorite quotes:

  • “Dark woods stood all about the old Hilton farmhouse, save down the hill, westward, where lay the shadowy fields which John Hilton, and his father before him, had cleared and tilled with much toil—the small fields to which they had given the industry and even affection of their honest lives.” (145-6)
  • “The little dog sat apart, and barked as if it fell entirely upon him to voice the general excitement.” (151)
  • “There was a tone in her father’s voice [as he told a familiar story] that drew Katy’s heart toward him with new affection. She dimly understood, but Susan Ellen was less interested. They had often heard this story before, but to one child it was always new and to the other old.” (153)
  • “‘The best of young folks is, they remind us of the old ones.’” (156)
  • “They did not know why their father was so pleased with [their portrait]; they would not know until age had dowered them with the riches of association and remembrance.” (157)

Works Cited

Card, Orson Scott. How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest, 2001. Print.

Jewett, Sarah Orne. “The Hiltons’ Holiday.” The Treasury of American Short Stories: Classic Works by the Masters. Ed. Nancy Sullivan. United States: Dorset, 1981. 145-58. Print.

 

Post written by Christopher Chinchilla; edited by Cyndi Sabo.

 

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