What Can We Steal From Ron Rash’s “The Ascent”?

Title of Work and its Form: “The Ascent,” short story
Author: Ron Rash
Date of Work: 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found: “The Ascent” first appeared in the Issue 39 of the journal Tin House (Spring 2009).  The story was subsequently chosen for the 2010 issue of The Best American Short Stories.  You can also read the story in Burning Bright, a 2011 collection of stories written by Mr. Rash.  Cool.  Here’s an interview with Mr. Rash!

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Voice

Discussion:
Jared is a normal fifth grader.  He likes a girl named Lyndee Starnes and enjoys long walks in the woods.  Jared lives within hiking distance of a crashed plane that hasn’t yet been found by the authorities.  Well, Jared finds the plane during one of his hikes.  He opens up the door and plucks a diamond ring from the finger of the dead woman inside the plane.  After a couple hours of fantasizing about what Lyndee will say upon receiving the ring, Jared’s parents take the ring to “see if it’s real.”  Well, Jared’s parents are drug addicts.  Jared’s dad tells him an obvious lie: the diamond ring—if you can believe it—was reported stolen by a woman, but here’s a chipped-up bicycle for Christmas, champ!  Jared knows the family needs money, so he steals more goodies from the plane.  After Mom and Dead head out for more drugs, Jared makes a third trip to the airplane as a blizzard rolls in.  The ending, which I don’t want to reveal, is beautiful and fitting.

How do you access the thoughts of a fifth grader?  I suppose many parents would tell you that it’s easier than figuring out what the heck a tenth-grader is thinking.  Mr. Rash places his third-person narrator pretty close to the consciousness of his protagonist.  Jared’s parents are always doing drugs, but it would be a mistake if Mr. Rash allowed the kid to grasp everything.  For example:

As soon as he came into the front room, Jared could tell his parents hadn’t been to bed.  The first was still going, kindling piled around the hearth.  His mother sat where she’d been last night, wearing the same clothes.  She was tearing pages out of a magazine one at a time, using scissors to make rages stars she stuck on the walls with tape.  His father sat beside her, watching intently.
The glass pipe lay on the coffee table beside four baggies, two with powder still in them.  There’d never been more than one before.

A fifth grader probably isn’t going to totally understand all of the slang names for the narcotic in question.  He will, however, know that Mom and Dad usually don’t leave so many baggies out.  Jared doesn’t know EXACTLY what is wrong with his Mom, but he does grasp the effects of the powder.

The simplicity of most of the sentences also reflects the fifth-grade understanding of Mr. Rash’s narrator.  Many of them are short and declarative.  Mr. Rash, however, certainly knows his way around a poetic turn of phrase.  The last sentence of the story is five lines long and a poem unto itself.  The contrast is somewhat shocking to the reader; Mr. Rash has shared seven or eight pages of one kind of sentences with the reader and then presents them with one that is completely different.

What Should We Steal?

  • Match your sentences to your character’s level of understanding.  The average kid simply can’t understand the world in as complicated manner as the average adult.  The narrator must, therefore, report in a way that does seem natural for a child, allowing the reader to draw conclusions.
  • Employ contrast to maximize the effect of an idea.  I don’t know about you, but I’d be pretty shocked if James Taylor grabbed a baseball bat and bashed out my windshield if I cut him off in a parking lot.  Why?  His public persona and his music seem so calm and laid-back.

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