Tuesday, March 10, 2009

"Given Her History" and The Virgin of Small Plains

1. The short story I chose for this week was “Given Her History” by Melissa VanBeck. There was some character development in the short story. I knew that Billy was mean and had burned his family. Also, the mom was abused by the dad and possibly the kids that may explain why Billy was so mean. It didn’t really say about the kids. The girl April-May has a few flashbacks that tell a little about their family life. The dad seemed to think about his family while at work and would bring them things that people left behind on the train. The Clarkes, the couple that took in April-May, were kind to her but the wife did not really want her. They weren’t really developed other that she was a teacher and he was retired and worked in the yard during his free time. The next person we are introduced to is Vivian, the old lady who is said to own half the town. When she was introduced it seemed that most of the townsfolk were afraid of her but when she took the girl back to her place she let the dog pee on the wall and did not get upset. She seemed to be very eccentric which is why the town may have feared her. April-May was quiet and had learned early on how to get away with things. She also seemed to be very naïve and ignorant about life. She didn’t know what to feed a goldfish and didn’t bother to find out. She also didn’t know how to use a phone. My opinion was that she didn’t know how to find out. But when she lived with Vivian, she refurbished a half burnt out rabbit hutch. So she had intelligence but limited access to knowledge outside her world. The character development for The Virgin of Small Plains is more complete. We see glimpses of each character from seventeen years earlier and then the adults they have become today. Abby and Mitch are still in love with each other and Rex is still carrying a torch for Sarah, the murdered girl. It is easier to develop more characters and give the reader more information abut them in a novel. One thing I noticed about the short stories is that only two or three people are developed unlike a novel where there may be up to six or more characters that we have in-depth knowledge about.
The plot flowed and moved along nicely. The loose ends were tied up at the end except for why Billy wanted his family dead. I guess he was just crazy. The townspeople hinted at it. In the novel, it was a very detailed and developed plot. The story followed the lives of three friends and their families during a time in their high school years and then in the present when one of them returns from afar. Both stories did a good job with plot and suspense. I did not suspect the ending of either story.
The setting for the short story was a rural area because the town was small and most people lived on farms. Even in the small town there was a division line. There were the people who were born there and the people who weren’t. The girl’s family did not have an indoor bathroom or a phone and the father worked for the railroad. I would say the year was in the 40’s or 50’s because April-May had not been exposed to many of the modern conveniences and by 2009 it’s difficult to find many areas without an indoor toilet or a phone. Also, trains are not in use as much as they were back then. Airplanes have taken over for the main type of transportation for travel. It was interesting that my short story and the novel were set in a small town/rural area. The novel was set in more recent times unlike the short story. I think the short story had to be in a rural area so that there wouldn’t be any other options for April-May but to stay with someone in the area, that way Billy would be able to find her later. I think the same could be said for the novel. It had to be a small down so the crime could be covered up.
The theme for the short story could be about lost souls. I saw Vivian as a lonely old lady and April-May was an orphan that no one wanted because her family was trash. They found each other and developed a companionable relationship. From an earlier short story I would see April-May as an invisible. No one wanted to know about her so no one saw her. The theme for the novel was about how the past catches up with us. We may try to hide something we have done but if others know about it then it will eventually come out. This could also be a theme of Mystic River. Another theme for The Virgin of Small Plains would be how people always trust those in charge and don’t question what they are told. The sheriff, judge and doctor controlled the town and they were all involved in the cover up of the murder.
I think the length of this short story worked well. I could see it being turned into a movie of the week by showing April-May’s life before her brother tried to set them all on fire. There is a lot that could be developed in the story to make it longer if the author had wanted to. The novel is also the right length and gives us all the elements of a good story.
I liked the short story and the novel. I didn’t like one better than the other.
2. My short story author was a female and she did a good job with describing the situation and the events as they unfolded. The male author’s I have read did a great job with that too. This story could have been written by a male author because there were not a lot of in-depth emotions, feelings, and descriptions as I read in the stories by the other two female authors. I wouldn’t have guessed this was a female author. Nancy Pickard writes like a typical female writer. There is a lot of emotion and description in each situation.
3. This story was about a young girl who wakes up in a ditch with the family dog and sees her house has burnt down. The police suspect that her brother set the fire then he skipped town. It is set in a small town and there is only one couple, the Clarkes, without kids so they take her in. The wife, who is April-May’s teacher, does not want to take her but her older husband does. When Mr. Clarke dies suddenly, April-May is taken in by an old lady who is said to own half the town. After two years April-May’s brother shows up for her. The old lady takes care of him. I thought the story was not really a mystery because the cops knew who had burned April-May’s family and they were looking for him. It was a good story but not a traditional mystery. I was surprised that the old lady took April-May in and that they were still together after two years. I had imagined that the girl would go from home to home like most foster kids do. I was satisfied with the ending but felt that the old lady, Vivian, took care of Billy because he had killed her rabbits not because he had come to kill April-May. The ending also tells that April-May remembers the night of the fire and that it wasn’t Billy that carried her out but the dog.
4. I wonder if most people like to read about characters that are flawed so that they can feel better about themselves. Maybe by reading about others with so many issues it makes the reader’s life look better.
5. This class has been enlightening. I have read novels by authors I have never read before. Some I liked and some I didn’t. I really do appreciate the effort, work, and thought that the author has to put in the story in order to appeal to a large audience. I hate writing and am glad there are many out there who enjoy it so I can transport myself to another place everyday.


  1. I also am grateful that others love to write and are very good at it. I don't know what my life would be like without a good book. I have written short stories before for classes but I have never attempted to write a mystery. That assignment is proving a real challenge. Until I tried to write a mystery, I did not fully appreciate the skill and finesse it takes to develop a good, interesting mystery, with good clues, but not lose the reader in the detail or twists and turns. I appreciate mysteries so much more now than before. They have always been my favorite to read, from my earliest days of Trixie Belden.

  2. I can see that some people like characters with some flaws so they can feel better about themselves. At the begining of this class when I saw we had to write a mystery story I was a bit nervouse but reading these short stories and sharing them with the class to hear what others have to say has really helped me. I am anxious to finish my story.

  3. I think that "Given" and "Virgin" had a lot of similarities and made for a good comparison as you outlined above. I think Billy and Patrick were cut from a similar cloth, as well as the father in "Given" and Tom the Judge -- selfish men that didn't really care about the consequences of their actions. The small town and the small families made for realistic power and control issues.

    In one of the definitions I had read about what constitutes a "Mystery Story" was the idea that somewhere along the line a crime had been committed. Before reading any of the stories in this class, I inherently thought this makes mystery more prone to darker stories and less likely to be all that uplifting of a read. I did, however, enjoy Eleven" and "Virgin" because the first had humor throughout and the latter had a happy ending.

  4. I liked the point that you brought up about "I wonder if most people like to read about characters that are flawed so that they can feel better about themselves. Maybe by reading about others with so many issues it makes the reader’s life look better." I personally like to read about more normal people because I can put myself in their shoes and feel involved in the story. I don't really feel like I can put myself in someone's shoes that is far different than myself because I don't feel as sorry for them if something bad happens to them. I do think that in real life I realize how blessed I am when I see families at the low income school that I work at.

  5. I like your comment that the theme of the short story could be about lost souls. My heart goes out to April-May. With all the tragedy she has endures as a youngster, it is a wonder that she is a sane as she is. She is a young girl with no real family and to know that no one in the town wants her either. Her brother, Billy had to have been a lost soul too for him to commit the crime he did. And on the other hand, I feel the residents of the small town were lost souls to be so heartless towards such an innocent child. You made me think about the story in a way I never would have. Thanks for the insight.