‘Bumblebees’ by Bobbie Ann Mason

 

Bumblebees by Bobbie Ann Mason, 1987

The magic trick:

Layering labored symbols and metaphors until the accumulative effect sneaks up on the reader

It can be a pretty dull formula. You tell a story where almost nothing happens in the text. The inciting incidents happened years before the first sentence. And so you lean very heavily on symbolism and metaphor to generate an emotional response in the reader. The reader, in turn, feels this burden and so the symbols wind up being pretty obvious. With nothing resembling actual plot to distract us, we’re left to pick every scrap of possible meaning from the bones of the story.

These bumblebees aren’t just bumblebees!

All right, so I wasn’t enjoying this story much. But, wouldn’t you know, by the end I was swept up in its sadness. It got to me.

There certainly aren’t any surprises. It’s not as if nothing happens for most of the text, but then just before the conclusion we get a seismic shift in perspective. Mason continues stacking simple symbols – the flood, the fire, the bridge, the glasses, the gardens and, yes, the bumblebees. But they add up, they really do.

You wind up with three women who are doing their best to take control of their pain. They’re trying all kinds of things, and by the story’s end, it’s clear that none of it is working. They have no control. None of us do. And that’s quite a trick on Mason’s part.

The selection:

Ruth would not move in until carpenters had installed new plasterboard upstairs to keep bees from entering through the cracks in the walls. In the fall, Barbara and Ruth had storm windows put up, and Barbara caulked the cracks. One day the following spring, Ruth suddenly shrieked and dropped a skillet of grease. Barbara ran to the kitchen. On the windowpane was a black-and-yellow creature with spraddled legs, something like a spider. It was a huge bumblebee, waking up from the winter and sluggishly creeping up the pane. It was trapped between the window and the storm pane.

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