What Can We Steal From Mark Slouka’s “The Hare’s Mask”?

Title of Work and its Form: “The Hare’s Mask,” short story
Author: Mark Slouka
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story was published in the January 2011 issue of Harper’s.  If you are a subscriber, you can read the story here.  Heidi Pitlor and Geraldine Brooks later selected the story for Best American Short Stories 2011 and included it in the anthology.  (A book we should all have anyway. =)  )

Bonuses: Mr. Slouka published a great essay about the university in the September 2009 issue of Harper’s that describes the state of the humanities in higher education.  The Paris Review has been kind enough to publish a Slouka story online.  Here is “Crossing.”  Here is an interview Mr. Slouka did with Powell’s.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Opening a Story

Discussion:
This powerful first person story is told by a grown man who misses his father terribly.  The first couple pages is devoted to a sweet description of the narrator’s father tying a fishing fly.

Mr. Slouka then slides into the primary narrative of the piece.  During his Czechoslovakian childhood (future band name?) he narrator’s father was responsible for tending to the rabbits in the hutch.  The father’s family hid a fleeing Jew in the rabbit hutch for nine days as the Nazis made their way through the area.  The father was responsible for bringing the man food and a bucket for bodily waste.  Speaking of food, the number of rabbits in the hutch dwindled very fast.  Before long, the narrator’s father had to make a choice between two of his favorites: not an easy thing to do for a young child.  Between description of the events of wartime Czechoslovakia are parts of the narrator’s own childhood.  His sister wanted a rabbit desperately, not knowing the rabbit-related sadness her father had known.  In response, the narrator calls the rabbit “Blank” and tries to work, in a childlike manner, through the kind of sadness his father successfully prevented him from feeling.

One of the big lessons that I learned from Lee K. Abbott is to be vigilant in considering where your story really starts.  Like all writers, Mr. Slouka had a choice to make.  The first four sections of “The Hare’s Mask” could each serve as the opening of the story:

  1. “Odd how I miss his voice…” – Establishes the POV and the son’s desire to protect the father and the hint that the father might have had some childhood trauma.
  2. “He used to tie his own trout flies…” – Establishes the POV and the kindness of the father and the fishing fly thing and hints toward the father’s childhood trauma.
  3. “I don’t know how old I was…” – Establishes the POV and the importance of the father and the man’s possible childhood trauma.
  4. “It began with the hare’s mask…” Establishes the POV and the fishing fly thing before rolling right into the “full story” of what happened in Czechoslovakia.

What is the effect of the choice Mr. Slouka made?  I think that including #1 first was wise because a great deal of story takes place during the narrator’s childhood anti-rabbit campaign.  #1 takes place in the dramatic present , relates a story from the narrator’s past and establishes that a great deal of “The Hare’s Mask” will likely relate events that happened “during the war.”

The important thing to remember is that each beginning would offer a slightly different shape to the story.  Not necessarily better or worse, I suppose, but just different.  When you dive back into a manuscript to do your second draft, try to figure out if the first paragraph should really be the opening of your tale.

So “The Hare’s Mask” centers upon a boy who has an emotional connection to rabbits.  Guess what happens when he has his own children…one of them wants a rabbit!  Drama and comedy often come out of our personal peccadilloes.  In a way, this is a variation on Chekhov’s gun.  (The writing concept that implies that if there’s a gun on stage in Act I, that gun better be fired by the end of the play.)

Mr. Slouka very wisely made all of the conflicts in the story streamlined and natural.  The narrator has a conflict with his sister: she wants a rabbit and he wants to protect his father.  The father had an internal conflict (and an external one with his hungry family): He didn’t want to kill the rabbits, but other people wanted to eat.  What kicked off all of these conflicts?  Nazis being unpleasant (to say the least).  The conflict in the story can all be traced back to the Nazis’ desire for Lebensraum.  All of the drama is related and all of it subsequently makes sense.

What Should We Steal?

  • Decide when your story REALLY starts.  Every narrative has numerous possible points of entry.  Which is best for the story you want to tell?
  • Allow conflict to emerge from your characters and what happens to them.  Your character is sad because he had to kill rabbits as a kid?  Guess what…that character’s kid is going to want a rabbit.  Your character doesn’t like people in a certain demographic?  Guess what…they’re going to end up in a job interview facing a person of that demographic.

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