Harriet Doerr Short Fiction Analysis

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Called by one reviewer the “mother of spare prose, a patron saint of life’s enduring details,” Harriet Doerr published a small body of fiction that has been highly praised for its classically spare style and its ability to evoke the personal past. All of Doerr’s fiction was based on her own long life, most of it focusing on the times she and her husband lived in Mexico as the only Americans in a small village.

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Doerr’s short stories, like all her fiction, are so thoroughly enmeshed with autobiography that the question of whether events she describes actually occurred matters little. Referred to by reviewers as essays, recollections, stories, and sketches, her short fictional pieces in The Tiger in the Grass, which she subtitled Stories and Other Inventions, derive their power from the unassuming voice of their narrator, who delights in language’s ability to stimulate discovery. Doerr’s short fiction admirably reflects what she once told an interviewer: that everything and everyone you meet rubs off on you and is never lost. “That’s what’s eternal,” Doerr said, “these little specks of experience in a great, enormous river that has no end.”

“Edie: A Life”

Although like many of the short fictions in her collection The Tiger in the Grass “Edie: A Life” is highly autobiographical, it is the most popular choice of short-story anthology editors primarily because it has the kind of well-made unity that critics expect of the modern short story. As the title suggests, the story is an account of the life of one person, Edith Fisk, governess to the five half-orphaned children of the Ransom family. However, unlike book-length biographical accounts, this “life” of Edie narrowly focuses on the governess’s relationship to the family, a stylistic limitation that, typical of the short story, transforms her into a significant symbolic character rather than a well-rounded realistic individual.

Brought over from England to California after the mother has died during the birth of twins, Edie immediately transforms the grieving family, becoming as much a part of their lives as food and water. In a twelve-year period, while the father brings three different wives into the home, Edie is the “mast” the children cling to in a “squall of stepmothers.” While mysterious adult affairs disrupt the house, Edie creates an alternate world of sheltering security.

When Edie is sixty years old and the children have all left, she moves to a beach cottage with a pension for the rest of her life. The story ends in the late 1940’s when Edie is dying of cancer and the children imagine the two little girls she once cared for in England, Alice and Anne, living in a tower, still seven and eight years old, writing to express their sorrow at her illness. “Edie: A Life” is an interesting example of how Doerr uses familiar literary conventions and a crystalline prose style to transform mere reality into a magical realm. There is a curious old-fashioned nineteenth century feel to the story, even though it is told in the modern economic style for which Doerr is famous.

Although the story is ostensibly about the “life” of Edie, she is little more in the story than a stable center, a fantasy fulfillment in the fashion of Mary Poppins, an adult who is able to respond to children as if they were adults even as she is willing effortlessly to enter into their childlike experience. The events of this autobiographical recollection may be based on real life, but the story itself is a highly stylized literary convention.

“The Tiger in the Grass”

The title piece of Doerr’s short fiction collection is largely a reminiscence motivated by the fact that the narrator’s son, who has lung and brain cancer, has given her a stuffed tiger for her eighty-fifth birthday to remind her to write an account of her life. The tiger...

(The entire section contains 1058 words.)

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Harriet Doerr Long Fiction Analysis