Monday, October 15, 2012

Love letter to a short story—The River Nemunas by Anthony Doerr

The River Nemunas is a story from Anthony Doerr's short story collection, Memory Wall.

Dear River,

(Poets need dogs: Allie has Mishap, Dickinson had Carlo)
I love you so much that I once tried to copy you from memory, which was nuts, even for me. But I really enjoyed writing sentences like this:
"My name is Allison. I’m fifteen years old. My parents are dead. I have a poodle named Mishap in a pet carrier between my ankles and a biography of Emily Dickinson in my lap."
There’s just something in the voice—a kind of straightness that’s clipped like machine-gun fire (this feels like the perfect description because the whole story occurs in a former Soviet bloc where another favorite character, Mrs. Sabo, is described as speaking in machine-gun Russian) but also gut-achingly honest. I have to admire all of that because this is a story about grief, and grief is hard to write—I’ve tried and failed—because you have to be careful your grieving character doesn’t seize up with passivity like a rusty hinge. No such fate for you, River. Even Allison’s moments of feeling grief don’t read as passive or self-pitying, like here:
"And then I feel the Big Sadness coming on, like there’s a shiny and sharp axe blade buried inside my chest. The only way I can stay alive is to remain absolutely motionless so instead of whispering Dear God how could you do this to me, I only whisper Amen which Pastor Jenks back home told me means I believe. . . . and [I] practice breathing in light and breathing out a color—light, green, light, yellow. . ."
It’s such good hot-on-cold writing—the emotion is hot but the voice is cold in the sense of being simple and matter-of-fact—no room for melodrama. Plus, despite her pain, Allie still fights to believe in something—which is not passive—and that leads her to take action to deal with her parents’ deaths. This becomes the central conflict in the story, since Grandpa Z—her mom’s father, and a non-believer in heaven—can’t let go of his daughter’s passing.

The other thing I love about you River, is your metaphors. The best metaphors are layered and you have that in spades. How Allie learns to deal with her parents’ death goes is by going out fishing with her elderly neighbor Mrs. Sabo. And when they glide down the highly polluted River Nemunas trying to find the last of the sturgeon to survive Soviet overfishing, the river, the water, and the fish itself become a symbol of how the past both fades and yet remains alive:
"This time, gravity will let me go."
"And as we watch the water, and breathe, I come back into myself—I swear—a fish as big as a nuclear missile leaps out of the river. Its belly is spotless white and its back is gray and it curls up in mid-air and flaps its tail and stretches like it’s thinking. This time gravity will let me go."

River, there’s so much else I could write—you’re one of those stories that can be read and reread again, as much for language as story structure. You’re one of a kind, just like the sturgeon in the River Nemunas.

With much love,
Captivated Audience


  1. I just re-read this again today. Amazing! Amazing!

  2. I just re-read this again today. Amazing! Amazing!