‘Sanctuary’ by Nella Larsen

Larsen, Nella 1930

Sanctuary by Nella Larsen, 1930

The magic trick:

Using a shocking plot twist to highlight the story’s themes of race, loyalty and fate

Another new month, another new theme at the SSMT site. This month we’re highlighting African-American authors.

We start with “Sanctuary,” one of those stories that stops in you your tracks as you read and sticks with you long afterward. Powerful stuff.

The themes of race and loyalty get ratcheted up through a plot twist – a surprise reveal near the end of the story. Often such twists are played for irony or even laughs. But in “Sanctuary,” the irony is only cruel and it serves to highlight the story’s very serious ideas. And that’s quite a trick on Larsen’s part.

The selection:

Annie Poole looked at him with cold contempt. She was a tiny, withered woman – fifty, perhaps – with a wrinkled face the color of old copper, framed by a crinkly mass of white hair. But about her small figure was some quality of hardness that belied her appearance of frailty. At last she spoke, boring her sharp little into those of the anxious creature before her.

“An’ w’at am you looking’ foh me to do ‘bout et?”

“Jes’ lemme stop till dey’s gone by. Hide me till dey passes. Reckon dey ain’t fur off now.” His begging voice changed to a frightened whimper. “Foh de Lawd’s sake, Mis’ Poole, lemme stop.”

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