Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

When “The Hermit’s Story,” appeared in The Best American Short Stories, 1999, Rick Bass said in his contributor’s note that as soon as he heard about a frozen lake with no water in it, he knew he wanted to write a story about that. Because he was trying to train two bird dogs at the time, he created a bird-dog trainer character and had her go up to Canada and fall into such a lake.

Such an event alone, despite its dramatic potential, does not make a story. What makes the event a story is Bass’s exploration of the symbolic significance of the magical world into which the characters enter. That magical world is presaged even before they break through the ice by the narrator’s description in the opening paragraphs of the blue world of the ice storm, in which the blue is like a scent trapped in the ice. The magicality is further emphasized by the fact that the storm has knocked out the electricity, creating a world of darkness. In the midst of this cold, blue, dark world, the two couples sit before a fire, creating the classic setting for a story to be told.

When Ann and Gray Wolf work the dogs in the snow of Saskatchewan, they travel across snowy hills, the sky the color of snow so that it seems they are moving in a dream. Except for the rasp of the snowshoes and the pull of gravity, they might believe they had ascended into a sky-place where the entire world was snow. All this is preparation for their descent into the improbable, magical world underneath the frozen lake. When they look up, the ice is clear, and they can see stars as if they were up there among them or else as if the stars were embedded in the ice.

The closest the narrator can come to articulating the meaning of the experience is to suggest that it perhaps was a zone in which the appearances of things disappeared, where surfaces faded away and instead their very essence was “revealed, illuminated, circumscribed, possessed.” Much like a magical journey in a fairy tale, the experience under the ice is a journey into a realm of dream and desire, which suggests that the world is a much more magical and mysterious place than it is usually believed to be.