The Centerpiece by Peter Matthiessen, 1951
The magic trick:
Using a story within the story to bring forth the conclusion
“The Centerpiece” occurs at the awkward intersection of a German-American Christmas celebration in 1941. So, of course, that’s magic trick No. 1: a particularly conflicting setting. The key technique within the story’s structure is the use of a story within the story. Madrina, the German matriarch of the family, tells a story at the dinner table about an old cousin of hers and his attempts at resisting a highway robbery. She intends the story as comedy, but it winds up bringing forth the climax and resolution of “The Centerpiece.” And that’s quite a trick on Matthiessen’s part.
Madrina peered from one descendant to the next, as if seeking a successor by the gauge of laughter. But her own smile faltered, then disappeared entirely. “We shall go to dinner,” she whispered. The family stared toward the hallway, where not Milly but Clara, her hands prim on her apron, leaned sepulchrally into the room. “We will start without Miss Millicent, Clara,” Madrina said, less to Clara than to Milly herself, as if she had said, I told you, Ernst, I told you!
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