What Can We Steal from Leigh Allison Wilson’s “Women in the Kingdom”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Women in the Kingdom,” short story
Author: Leigh Allison Wilson
Date of Work: 1989
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The short story appears in Wind, Ms. Wilson’s second collection of stories.  You can always purchase the book or find it at your local library.

Bonuses:  Kirkus really liked Wind.  The Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction really liked Ms. Wilson’s first collection of stories.  Ms. Wilson is the Director of the Creative Writing Program at SUNY Oswego.  If you’re in the area, consider taking a class with her!

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Compelling Narration

Discussion:
Ms. Wilson’s narrator is a woman who is as lonely as she is proud.  The woman has just moved to a very cold town on the shores of a big lake, a place that is beautiful, but is dominated by “huge castles in a fog of snow, hundreds of them, thousands, lined along the shore like spun sugar, all of them made of ice.” Why is she in this striking and barren place?  A woman named Arnette had betrayed her for a divorced man, choosing the guy over the narrator.  So it goes.  The narrator lives with a coworker named Amy who has a boyfriend who is sober “till maybe nine o’clock in the morning.”  (At least the guy is dedicated to SOMETHING.)  The inciting incident of the story occurred three months earlier; two missionary women visited the narrator, asking questions and offering salvation.  The traditional power balance between preacher and stranger is flipped; the narrator is eventually the one begging the evangelists to stay.  Alas, the narrator’s regrets are not without value; she realizes that she will wait, no matter the cost, for the kind of company that will make her happiest instead of settling for the most comfortable and available company around.

If you ever meet Ms. Wilson, you quickly find that she is very much like her fiction: endlessly interesting, at once relaxed and intellectually curious and possessed of a compelling intensity.  “Women in the Kingdom” is not a whiz-bang plotfest.  So why is the story so good?  There IS a lot happening, just not in the same way that a lot happens in the Transformers movies.  The first person narrator is giving you her autobiography, sharing herself in the same pleasant manner as if you were having a cup of sweet tea with her on a front porch.  The narrator is twenty-eight years old and worldly enough to understand she is not happy and what can get her there, but not quite old enough to know how to find that missing puzzle piece.  The narrator’s diction is laid back and conversational:

  • Earlier that day I’d taken a walk down by the lake, nothing you’d plan, just a walk.
  • I worked at a department store, had been for a week, loading little boxes of shoes mostly, but I kept an eye on the fashions in the women’s section, knew one kind of material from another, and those two women had coats that couldn’t have been any warmer than cotton pajamas.
  • I knew what it meant to be pointed in the right direction, even though half the time the right direction turns out to be a dead end later on down the line.  I know that well enough; everyone does.

Ms. Wilson clearly establishes the tone of her narrator early on in the story and matches the narrator to the plot.  Some missionaries come and talk about their faith, they pray a little and leave poor Hugo in the car, then they leave.  The writer and her protagonist find importance in these “small” events and wrap you up in appealing language.  Me?  Sadly, I find it hard to relax in this manner.  I always want more “stuff” to happen to make sure I maintain the reader’s interest.  A confident and skilled writer will hold a reader rapt with another of the tools in his or her writer’s toolbox.

Ms. Wilson’s story posed a very simple problem whose solutions often seem complicated.  The narrator simply can’t know the names of the missionary women who come to meet her.  The third person omniscient narrator can simply proclaim a character’s name and offer deep characterization in a few sentences.  Easy-peasy.  The first person is far more restricted…unless the character is psychic, I suppose.  How did Ms. Wilson address the problem of differentiating and characterizing the two visitors?

  • She gives one red hair and the other black hair.  (Neither wears a hat, which is probably a good idea during a lake effect event.)  This allows her to call them things like, “the one with the red hair.”
  • The black-haired woman is young and the redhead is older.  Contrast!  One misses her husband and the other doesn’t.  Contrast!
  • The narrator seems to greatly prefer the black-haired woman; positive characterizations about one of the women in the narration can probably be applied to her.
  • After several pages, we get the visitors’ names:  Mary Magdalene and Mary Ellen.  Uh oh…these are so similar!  Well, that’s why Ms. Wilson has the narrator call Mary Magdalene “Maggie.”

The reader may not need a ton of characterization, but they do need something that will help them remember who is who and a little bit about what they’re like.

Another thing I love about the story is the way that the narrator blends the present and the past and the slightly more distant past.  During the encounter with the missionaries, the narrator is always thinking about SOMETHING that has influenced where she is in her life.  She’s reminded of Arnette or she muses with regard to how unhappy she is and how hard it is to change.  And she acknowledges her loneliness and deep need for company at this time in her life.  The narrator acknowledges that her life is a tapestry and all of the events of her life, all of her choices, are woven together to plant her in a cold town in a home that isn’t quite a home, instilled with the understanding that the waiting, perhaps, can be paradise.

What Should We Steal?

  • Maximize other elements of storytelling when you’ve chosen to de-emphasize others.  So you’re not writing a plot-heavy story.  That’s fine.  Make sure that your characters are interesting.  Or your use of language.
  • Differentiate characters who are strangers to your first person narrators.  When you meet a bunch of people at a conference, you don’t remember everyone’s names.  You do, however, characterize these strangers in some (hopefully) memorable way.
  • Blend past, present and future to accomplish quick characterization.  You can’t learn everything about a person in twenty pages, but you can learn an awful lot if you mention their most important and relevant life experiences and deepest feelings.

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