(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Set on a high-plains ranch, the summer retreat of a Silicon Valley family, “Silent Passengers” explores personal tragedy from a perspective that is intimate and introspective. Ostensibly the Steiners have purchased their summer home to enable Mr. Steiner to spend quality time with his children, nine-year-old James and twin daughters, but on the afternoon in question he lies isolated in the twins’ bedroom, napping off the aftereffects of excessive beer consumption while his family visits a neighboring ranch to ride horses.

After Steiner’s wife, Jen, and their children dismount from their ride, one of the horses, an Apache, hooves James in the chest, and the boy is knocked unconscious when his head strikes the ground. Apprised of the accident by a neighbor’s phone call, Steiner recalls the final words that he spoke to James, a dismissive “I don’t care” in response to his son’s query about whether to go with the girls or remain with his father to help repair a broken tractor. As he races to the emergency room, this memory torments Steiner, as does his regret about drinking, a habit he had promised to avoid while on vacation.

Ultimately, this is a story about caring, hope, love, and resurrection. The father who said he did not care cares deeply. Following a doctor’s pronouncement that James will likely remain comatose, Steiner and his wife fall to their knees in an anguished embrace suggestive of physical if not verbal prayer. When they...

(The entire section is 542 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Silent Passengers” is the deceptively simple story of the gradual and initially uncertain recovery of a young boy from an accident, as seen through the eyes of his father. Steiner is the middle-aged owner of a silicon-chip company on the coast (which coast is never specified). His distant ranch appears to be something between an avocation and a hobby; at any rate, he is not very adept at handling the necessary chores. Just before the accident, he is desultorily attempting to get a tractor to work, a task a neighbor eventually accomplishes. Regardless of how he may appear in his company, he does not seem to be a very forceful figure in this environment; his son James makes a mild joke about Steiner’s impotent repetition of the word “but” when confronted by a plumber’s refusal to come quickly to repair a broken bathroom. Steiner’s character is also deftly indicated in his motivation for the bathroom’s repair: He wants his place to appear as comfortable as possible, not for his family, but for the visit of a skillful colleague from the east coast.

Steiner has another deficiency that is alluded to only once in the text, the shadow of which seems to haunt him as he anxiously watches over his injured son. Steiner has a drinking problem and has just drunk two beers while repairing the tractor when he allows James to visit a neighbor’s ranch, where the accident occurs. The guilt that Steiner feels for indulging himself and which is partially inspired by the reproach he sees...

(The entire section is 611 words.)