Short Story Friday: The Willows by Eileen Kump

There have been some excellent submissions so far to Short Story Friday. But too many of them are from Popcorn Popping and several are rather self-serving. That’s not a bad thing at all and we will get to them, but to kick things off, I decided to dig deep in to Dialogue’s archives. Here’s what I came up with:

Title: The Willows

Author: Eileen Kump

Publication Info: Dialogue v. 8, no. 2 (1973)

Why?: For these words: “If she heard the boulder.” Sorry to be so coy, but really, when the story hit that point all of a sudden it got me good.

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8 thoughts on “Short Story Friday: The Willows by Eileen Kump”

  1. Wow. That is…wow.

    I think the thing I’m most impressed with is the voice of this story, which is convincingly juvenile. I also like how Gump manages the various threads going forward. I also get the feeling that there’s a lot I’m missing, just because I’m not an attentive enough reader.

    On a human level, I find myself wondering if/when Amy and Will will ever get to see each other again…

  2. I had that same feeling that I’m missing things because I’m not an attentive enough reader but also because I’m another generation removed from the memories of those times. Which is part of why I picked the story.

    There are some other great stories in the early issues of Dialogue (in fact Doug Thayer dominated those early years), but I chose this one because it really snuck up on me.

    I also found some nice poetry so I definitely think that after 4 months of Short Story Friday (I’d like to do 15-20 stories), we’ll need to do Weekend Poetry (or some better title).

  3. .

    Seeing this time period from the viewpoint of a child is enlightening. I think it is easy to forget how fully unknown the world is to children.

    I’m not totally satisfied with the ending. She knows less now than she did before and her ignorance makes it impossible for her to know whether or not she is saying the right things to McGary. I needed to see their second encounter.

    I will echo the Will question though, and I think it was best left unresolved.

  4. .

    I was thinking this morning about this story and what I would tell my AP kids if we read it. One thing of course would be to look at the title. We always look at the title. And this story is called “The Willows.” Not “The Bridge” or “The Mill” or “The Boulder” or “The Visitor” or “Not a Swear Word” or “Brother and Sister” or “Our Last Day” or anything else. It’s called “The Willows.” So what makes that setting so important?

    Amy has a major revelation in the mill when she meets McGary that shakes her worldview, but that’s nothing compared to the confusion she experiences in the willows. The prose reflects her confusion, too. And balancing those two revelations is no easy task. The world is bigger and stranger than she ever imagined, than any number of Salt Lake City games ever prepared her for. McGary doesn’t have knives in his beard, sure, but her mother is a stranger.

  5. It seems to me also that the story is centrally about concealment, including the irony that what a young girl must learn as a good daughter and good member of the Church is how to life. “The Willows” I think points at this, since the willows are (centrally) the place of concealment in the story.

  6. What is the purpose in ending at such an ambiguous point instead of ending at a point of conclusion or closure? I assume there must be a reason for it, but I don’t get it. It leaves me going “But…. then what happened?”

    Is that a low-brow reaction? If this is just one chapter (with a cliff-hanger ending) from a larger novel, I’d be interested in reading the rest.

  7. That’s an excellent question, C. L.

    I don’t have an answer for you, but one of the things I hope to get into as we get more stories in is to discuss what one loses or gains in exploring Mormonism through modes that are more literary (prizing ambiguity) and more genre-like (prizing plot and conclusion).

  8. I was struck by this story, by the subtlety of Kump’s voice, and this poignancy caught me off guard, so much so that I began taking notes profusely while I was reading so I could make sense of what was happening to Amy as the story progressed, what was happening to me as I read. Suffice it to say, Amy helped me to see our cultural struggle with the vestiges of polygamy in a new light and, as a result of our intersection, our connection, I’ve been, in a sense, reborn with her into the world of ambiguity and paradox.

    In one sense, that’s how I read this story: as a coming of age tale told in Amy’s indirect voice (as mediated by the narrator). While this structure and style allow meaning to unfold as the story progresses, they also hold us at a distance from meaning and from Amy’s experience and we’re left to assimilate what’s happening in this community, in the characters’ lives through the confused and maturing—indeed, confused because maturing—eyes of an eight-year old girl.

    The turning point in the story, for me and, I think, for Amy, comes when she wades into the “sea of green willows” on a quest for her mother and finds her sitting “among the thickest willows” with a group of “many” other women, a reflection of the matriarchal structure and strength that keeps this community alive. Yet, as Amy falls into her mother’s lap, this worried and confused little girl sees something in her mother, and by extension, in her community she’s never seen before: violence and fear. This image is characterized by her mother’s disheveled face, framed by “strands” of “loose” hair “that looked to Amy like fists” and by the way mother lays her hands on daughter, holding tighter than ever before—“too tight,” Amy says—though I suspect this grasp turns quickly from anger to fear as the mother wonders if her family will be compromised by her daughter’s foolishness, by the young girl’s longing to be safe in her mother’s arms.

    At this moment of realization and at her mother’s insistent question (“How old are you, Amy?”) Amy is forced to admit and to begin to accept her place in this threatened and rapidly changing community. And she falls from her state of innocence and must leave this thick garden, the paradise of her mother’s lap, the safety of this womb, the seat of life, and return alone to the dreary outside world. No longer will she find refuge in her mother’s arms; she must now ultimately stand alone against the threat of uncertainty.

    Amy’s coming of age, her passage into this fully adult world of paradox, comes through her participation in the proper rituals: her baptism, by tears (hers and the other women’s), occurs in the sea of willows; she participates in a sacrament of “bread and milk” overseen by her mother; and she’s confirmed by fire in her father’s arms at the kitchen hearth (69-70). And the next morning when she awakens to the empty world of her childhood, she essentially realizes that she’s been initiated into this group’s sub-community of priestesses, a role in which she’ll be forced to face the blurring lines of her life, the ambiguities of life in a community, uncertainties characterized by her use of the word “damn” (the keyword that opens this world to her), something she condemns earlier in the story, and her changing perception of McGary.

    As the warden appears in the story’s final scene, he is an indistinct shadow in the doorway; yet, as he moves toward Amy, coming into focus, into the light, she sees that his “face [is] not as dark” (71): he has become more real, more human, less indistinct, less obscure. And yet, Amy concludes, “He had to be” a gentile. Had to be in order for the world of her childhood to make sense. Had to be in order for the easy distinctions between self and other to remain. But as the story concludes, these distinctions are absorbed in the willow-like image of Amy “arch[ing] her back against the porch and wait[ing]” (71), waiting for McGary’s approach, for McGary’s words, for the caress of his language to bridge the world of her childhood with the woman she knows she must become in a richly ambiguous world where willows can represent the connection between heaven and earth; where they are at once a symbol of comfort and safety and a place of concealment, fear, and the secrets we are sometimes forced to protect in order to preserve the integrity of our community—all things that connect us to our deepest selves, to others, to God.

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