Why I Live At The P.O. by Eudora Welty, 1941
The magic trick:
The best conversational narrator ever
This is the best Fourth of July story I know, though the patriotic connections are, admittedly, tangential at best.
A lot of writers try to imbue their narrators with a conversational voice so that the stories feel simply like someone in the room talking to the reader. Few succeed – I actually can’t think of any – at pulling off this magic trick as well as Welty does here.
Her narrator, Sister, isn’t writing at all. She’s talking. You feel like her closest confidante on the planet, her best friend in the world (and that might not be far from the truth) as she tells her tale of woe and defiance. The effect peaks about halfway through the story when we get what has to be one of my all-time favorite sentences:
“… This is the way she looks,” I says, and I looked like this.
Brilliant. It’s a joke that only works in writing. Of course it’s a sentence that should only be acted out, not read. But you could say that about the whole story. That’s the point. Other writers try to sound conversational. This story doesn’t try; it succeeds. And that’s quite a trick on Welty’s part.
Just then something perfectly horrible occurred to me.
“Mama,” I says, “can that child talk?” I simply had to whisper! “Mama, I wonder if that child can be you know in any way? Do you realize,” I says, “that she hasn’t spoken one single, solitary word to a human being up to this minute? This is the way she looks,” I says, and I looked like this.
Well, Mama and I just stood there and stared at each other. It was horrible!
“I remember well that Joe Whitaker frequently drank like a fish,” says Mama. “I believed to my soul he drank chemicals.” And without another word she marches to the foot of the stairs and calls Stella-Rondo.
“Stella-Rondo? O-o-o-o-o! Stella-Rondo!”
“What?” says Stella-Rondo from upstairs. Not even the grace to get up off the bed.
“Can that child of yours talk?” asks Mama.
Stella-Rondo says, “Can she what?”
“Talk! Talk!” says Mama. “Burdyburdyburdyburdy!”
So Stella-Rondo yells back, “Who says she can’t talk?”
“Sister says so,” says Mama.
“You didn’t have to tell me, I know whose word of honor don’t mean a thing in this house,” says Stella-Rondo.
And in a minute the loudest Yankee voice I ever heard in my life yells out, “OE’m Pop-OE the Sailor-r-r-r Ma-a-an!” and then somebody jumps up and down in the upstairs hall. In another second the house would of fallen down.
“Not only talks, she can tap-dance!” calls Stella-Rondo. “Which is more than some people I won’t name can do.”
“Why, the little precious darling thing!” Mama says, so surprised. “Just as smart as she can be!” Starts talking baby talk right there. Then she turns on me. “Sister, you ought to be thoroughly ashamed! Run upstairs this instant and apologize to Stella-Rondo and Shirley-T.”
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