‘Upon The Sweeping Flood’ by Joyce Carol Oates

oates, joyce carol 1966

Upon The Sweeping Flood by Joyce Carol Oates, 1966

The magic trick:

Very subtly using misdirection in the first sentence as a means of foreshadowing

Consider me the perfect test case. I knew nothing about this story except that it was well-regarded and popular anthology fodder. Oates pounced on my ignorance, taking me in with a clever misdirection in the story’s opening sentence.

She writes that a man, Walter Stuart, is stopped in the rain by a sheriff’s deputy. Well, my little brain automatically pictured some kind of crime scene, an arrest, a suspect, something dark. Oates goes on to explain that this isn’t an arrest at all; rather it’s a warning. Stuart is a family man, and the police officer is simply alerting him to an oncoming hurricane.

All that registered with me, of course, but somewhere in my little brain I maintained that image Oates plants in the first sentence. I read the story with the vague idea that this was a man I momentarily had pictured as a criminal being stopped and arrested by the police.

That’s a very sneaky little manipulation by the author. And I love it. She makes the slightest suggestion, backtracks immediately and proceeds in a seemingly different direction and lets the reader retrace the paths in the end. And that’s quite a trick on Oates’s part.

The selection:

One day in Eden County, in the remote marsh and swamplands to the south, a man named Walter Stuart was stopped in the rain by a sheriff’s deputy along a country road.

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