‘Over The River And Through The Wood’ by John O’Hara

O'Hara, John 1934

Over The River And Through The Wood by John O’Hara, 1934

The magic trick:

The power of pace

I’m going to talk NBA basketball today. This story reminded me of Chris Paul, probably the best point guard in the league over the last decade. He’s not as athletic as a lot of guards but he is an expert at controlling the pace of the game. While many players only know how to play in one gear: as fast as they possibly can go; Paul is the master of playing slow. Then, bam, out of nowhere he turns on jets for five minutes and lights up the defense. John O’Hara is doing his best Chris Paul impression in this story.

The story moves along slow slow slow. It’s fair to say it drags. It’s fair to say it’s pretty boring. Then, bam, out of nowhere Mr. Winfield makes a quick series of ill-fated decisions that shock and shake the reader. The flurry of action would probably be pretty memorable on its own, but coming on the heels of a very slow-moving plot, it stands up and punches the reader in the face.

The connection of the literary effect and the character’s life is a neat trick too. Everything in Mr. Winfield’s old age is moving very slowly now. The flurry of action in the story corresponds with the childish, impetuous actions of a young man. He is denied and thrown back to the slow-paced self-loathing of his dying years. It’s all pretty devastating. And that’s quite a trick on O’Hara’s part.

The selection:

“Father! You’re freezing!” Mrs. Day tried very hard to keep the vexation out of her tone.

“It was a cold ride,” he said. “This time of the year. We had snow flurries between Danbury and Sheffield, but the girls enjoyed it.”

“You go right upstairs and have a bath, and I’ll send up – what would you like? Tea? Chocolate? Coffee?”

He was amused. The obvious thing would be to offer him a drink, and it was so apparent that she talking fast to avoid that. “I think cocoa would be fine, but you’d better have a real drink for Sheila and her friends.”

“Now, why do you take that tone, Father? You could have a drink if you wanted it, but you’re on the wagon, aren’t you?”

“Still on it. Up there with the driver.”



2 thoughts on “‘Over The River And Through The Wood’ by John O’Hara

  1. Any time you claim a story is dull and boring sends a red flag: no editor will publish a dull, boring story and no dull, boring story will be repeatedly anthologized as this one has. You have clearly missed something.
    The sensation that the pace of a story has changed—that things speeded up or slowed down is usually the result of the length of the sentences. Simply, long, many phrased sentences create a slower pace than short, concise sentences and frequent full stops. The best way to hear this effect is to read the story out loud.
    I can think of two examples that help show what’s going on. In the Conrad story, The Lagoon, part of the narrative describes a slow, languid passage along a jungle-choked river. The length of the sentences matches their slow passage but in the part that describes the brother’s valiant challenge and flight, the sentences are different. The reader (silently or aloud) cannot resist responding to the difference in the style of the prose. The pace has clearly quickened. This alternation has the effect of intensifying both the stillness of the lagoon and the frenzy of the chase.
    In the story Near Pala, by Norman Rush, four Brits are traveling by Land Rover across a stretch of desert in Botswana. As they navigate the ruts on their approach to Pala, they must either keep up speed or bog down in the sand. It is difficult to resist reading this part of the story out loud. The clip of the sentences is compelling. That’s pace.
    I can’t see any of this variation in sentence style in Over the River and Through the Wood. Until the girl calls the old guy a dirty old man, things are pretty sedate. I agree with you 100% though that the end is a kicker.
    So, how did O’Hara do that? The ace courtman responds and looks for a chance to move in. O’Hara has charge of both sides from the beginning and fixed it in his favor to make it look like he busted you unawares.
    I think the charmpoint, of the story is the concise manner in which O’Hara has brought all the parts presented in the first paragraph to a startling ending. The very first paragraph gives us what the whole story has: we begin with order, dignity, and a degree of privilege. “The car will be here soon, Sir,” type stuff. But the number of young girls has increased, that wasn’t expected, and he’s left balanced on a jump-seat. At the end of the paragraph he has been belittled, ignored and diminished.
    At every turn, he miss-reads the situation, poor guy. Hot chocolate! Give me a break! Where’s the gin?
    At the ending he was trying to be cordial and everything went to hell. We should have known when the granddaughter reminded her friend about the room . . . . What an ending!
    I can’t resist comparing this story to Miss Brill, by Katherine Mansfield, another old-folk-story in which the older character gets it in the end.

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