‘Key To The City’ by Diane Oliver

Key To The City by Diane Oliver, 1965

The magic trick:

Pacing pacing pacing 

This story unfolds with the pacing of a master storyteller. That it was written by someone not yet 22 years old is simply remarkable. That a car crash took her life less than a year later is simply tragic.

The story moves very slowly initially. It is not entirely clear what the conflict is for the first few pages. A family is leaving their hometown for the big city, but rather than focus on the action, Oliver instead lets the story breathe. We get a feel for what the town is like, what the townspeople are all about. It’s very Chekhovian.

But then in the second half – and this really is the beauty of the pacing – the plot picks up. There is real tension. The family is made to feel like the other very soon after leaving home. And then there is the drama involving their father, who is supposed to be waiting for them at the bus station in Chicago – emphasis on supposed to.

It’s one thing to have a story that creates high stakes and keeps you interested with plot drama. It’s another to have a story that takes a slower, slice-of-life approach. To find a story that manages to be both kinds of story at the same time? Rare indeed. And that’s quite a trick on Oliver’s part.

The selection:

Mattie had practically confiscated the doll and for reasons known only to Mattie had named her Tanker-Belle. She had spent most of her time since Christmas in the Pretend House back of the pecan tree. Tanker-Belle was rather frayed, after having spent several nights in the rain.

Now Nora explained to the little girls that at last the doll was going to have a nice long rest. She had packed Tanker-Belle immediately after breakfast while Mattie was busy with something else. She was now inside the big roasting pan with the dictionary and the kitchen forks. But Mattie insisted that she knew Tanker-Belle was lonesome inside the turkey pan.

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