What Can We Steal From Megan Mayhew Bergman’s “Housewifely Arts”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Housewifely Arts,” short story
Author: Megan Mayhew Bergman (on Twitter @mayhewbergman)
Date of Work: 2010
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story was originally published in 2010 by One Story, one of the best journals out there.  Their conceit is a lot of fun; you get one story in the mail at a time.  The story was subsequently chosen by Heidi Pitlor and Geraldine Brooks for Best American Short Stories 2011.  The story also appears in Ms. Bergman’s short story collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise.

Bonuses:  Read the title story from Ms. Bergman’s collection at Narrative MagazineHere is an interview Ms. Bergman gave to flyway.  Here is a talk Ms. Bergman gave that is titled “Fiction as an Agent of Change”:

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Parallel Narratives

Discussion:
Ms. Bergman’s first-person narrator has problems.  She’s a single mother who is missing her own since the woman died.  Her son Ike, like all kids, is growing up fast and the narrator laments the kind of man he may become.  (The narrator seems not to have the highest opinion of those who possess the ol’ XY.)  The only remnant of her mother is Carnie, a parrot who lived with the woman in her final years.  In flashbacks, Ms. Bergman depicts Carnie singing Judy Garland and Patsy Cline songs to fill the loneliness of the old woman’s life.  The narrator and Ike find the bird in a roadside zoo, but Carnie won’t say a word.  After that, mother and son take a detour to visit her childhood home, now moldy and dilapidated.  The story ends with a sad flashback: the day the narrator helped her mother move into a home.

Ms. Bergman employs a narrative technique in the story that I want to point out: the parallel narrative.  She alternates between flashback scenes that took place between the narrative and her mother and ones in the dramatic present.  The two narratives are mirrors that reflect upon each other.

  1. We learn how the narrator and her mother felt about each other and the obstacles that prevented them from reaching understanding.
  2. We learn about the narrator’s need to find some peace with her dead mother and to provide her son with at least the kind of home that she had growing up.

Another element that I found interesting about the story is that Ms. Bergman was NOT building up to the discovery of the bird.  I thought this was going to be the interesting, perhaps cathartic end of the tale, but Ms. Bergman introduces Carnie 60% of the way into the story and the scene itself wasn’t very long.  The parrot was the BIG THING that the reader was expecting to see.  Would the narrator gain some catharsis?  Would she hear her mother’s voice?

Instead, the parrot was simply another plot point building up to the material about the contrasting homes.  Ms. Bergman did not trick the reader, but it seems that she did understand what was maintaining the reader’s interest.  After Carnie’s time in the sun is over, our attention is turned to the story thread involving the homes.

What Should We Steal?

  • Employ parallel narratives to enhance the significance of two stories.  The past affects our understanding of both the dramatic present and past.
  • Understand what you are setting up for the reader and decide whether you are going to give it to them.  You don’t want to do a bait-and-switch, but it’s a good idea to understand the expectations you’ve built so you can subvert them.

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