Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Clear, concise descriptions of people and places are hallmarks of Garland’s style. The story indicates that the narrator is the son Tommy, now grown up and looking back on the return of his father and the futile struggles that the entire family waged against poverty that stifled both body and soul. This revelation adds to the basic credibility and realism of the story. Saying just so much but never too much is a technique that Garland mastered early, especially in presenting his characters or describing the landscape. The characters are ordinary, rather drab, and yet so sympathetic that their plight reaches out to the reader.

Garland was a precise recorder of life on the prairie, and he wrote as one who loved it and yet deplored it. Dramatic contrasts are everywhere to be found demonstrating the poverty of the environment and the goodness of the people. Intimate details are also added at the right time in the story—it might be Edward saying goodbye to Cranby and Saunders, or coaxing his shy children to him with three red apples, or Emma fixing biscuits and blushing at her husband’s compliments. The author also captured the dialect of the Middle Borders with remarkable felicity.

In “The Return of a Private,” Garland wove together theme, character, and landscape into a powerful statement about the ordinary and sometimes forgotten people of the prairie. Indeed, not the least of his contributions to literature is his wholehearted devotion to American themes. He took the trials and tribulations of the common people and rendered them in starkly realistic prose. In this and other stories, Garland followed his own injunction to portray life as it is.