The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick, 1981
The magic trick:
Transporting the reader into an extraordinary historical setting through the universality of human experience
I remember reading this story in a Short Fiction class during my sophomore year of college. It knocked me out. Preparing to re-read it this week, I was curious to see if I’d have the same reaction to it now as then – the thought that being that the 200 stories I have read for this blog would make me a far more nuanced reader than I was at 19 ignorant years old. The result? Knocked out again the exact same way. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t mean I have failed to get smarter as a reader during these 17 years between reads. I just think this story is that good, that visceral.
Like Ambrose Bierce does in his Civil War stories, or Nathan Englander in “Fresh Fruit For Young Widows,” Ozick is able to transport the reader into horrific scenes of historical significance. Scenes that the reader undoubtedly has never witnessed; and scenes that in all likelihood the author has never witnessed. That is a very, very risky trick. The old adage is “Write what you know,” so how does one write about a scene they could never really know about? To answer that question, I think Ozick does the same thing here that we saw in Englander and Bierce and Stephen Crane and others. She focuses on the most basic human elements of the story.
Essentially, “The Shawl” is the story of the bond between mother and daughter and the will to live. Presumably, Ozick knows these topics quite intimately. She’s then able to take these themes and set them in an extraordinary circumstance. I write as if it’s a simple thing to do, but that’s an incredibly difficult trick to pull off as a writer. She blends the setting with the themes and the conflict in “The Shawl” so seamlessly it’s jaw-droppingly good. Not for one second do you question her authority as a storyteller or the reality of the setting. The result is that one feels as if they have been transported in time and place to a 1940s concentration camp – which means, of course, pure heartbreak. And that’s quite a trick on Ozick’s part.
Rosa knew Magda was going to die very soon; she should have been dead already, but she had been buried away deep inside the magic shawl, mistaken there for the shivering mound of Rosa’s breasts; Rosa clung to the shawl as if it covered only herself. No one took it away from her. Magda was mute. She never cried. Rosa hid her in the barracks, under the shawl, but she knew that one day someone would inform; or one day someone, not even Stella, would steal Magda to eat her.