‘Stories Of Africa’ by Maeve Brennan

Stories Of Africa by Maeve Brennan, 1968

The magic trick:

Demonstrating expert level character establishing

These Bagot stories just get better and better. This one goes in a lot of different directions. The title turns out to be a bit of a red herring.

I especially appreciated the opening section in which the reader gets to know the youngest daughter, Margaret, a little bit better. It really is a master’s class in quickly establishing a character.

As the story opens, Mrs. Bagot is prepping the house and her daughters for a priest’s visit to their home. Amidst the hurry, we get a brief visit into Margaret’s point of view. She stages a quiet rebellion in the form of sitting on top of the prized family quilt. She isn’t admonished for it; and that’s the problem. She feels the fact that she doesn’t get in trouble for something that is specifically disallowed in the house is a sign of her mother not taking her seriously as a “mature” 7-year-old. We then get into Mrs. Bagot’s thoughts about the situation, and then a further explanation about the nature of the girl’s behavior.

It all happens in the space of two pages. The laser-focused attention to relevant backstory detail is remarkable. The understanding of psychology is exceptional. And the writer’s deftness with switching among perspectives is perfect.

All in all, it’s a brilliantly efficient way of letting the reader get to know a character. And while it isn’t the theme of the story, the section’s certainly worth mention and reread for any would-be writers.

And that’s quite a trick on Brennan’s part.

The selection:

Margaret slid off the bed and came over to stand beside her mother. Her mother had known all the time that she was sitting on the quilt, and she had said nothing, because she wanted peace in the house when the Bishop arrived. Margaret would have liked to squeal with annoyance. Her mother had made a fool of her again. And Lily, who was standing rigid while her mother gave a final combing to the ends of her hair – Lily was watching her sideways to see if she would say something. She would have liked to push Lily, but more than that she wanted to say something to show her mother she was not a baby anymore. They treated her like a baby, letting her do wrong things and not saying anything, because they were afraid she’d make a scene. She wasn’t going to make a scene with the Bishop coming. They didn’t trust her any more than they would trust a tiny baby. Margaret wished she could say something clever that would put both of them in their place, but she could think of nothing. No words came to her, and if they had come there would have been no room for them, because her head was full of tears that rushed forward, searching for her eyes. She was going to disgrace herself. She shut her eyes tightly, but the tears burst out and she felt them beginning to pour down her face. She sobbed loudly.

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