The Poor Orphan Girl by William Maxwell, 1965
The magic trick:
Establishing an expectation of clean, dramatic plotlines only to deliver something more complicated and sad
I think he probably fashioned this as a satirical fairy tale. I’m not sure how effective it is as such. Certainly, I’ve read many other mock fairy tales that are better at sending up that particular form. That’s not to say this isn’t a good story. It’s very good.
It begins with some fairy tale tropes. “There once was a girl…” She has a very extreme situation. An orphan, she’s put up for adoption and then sent overseas from Scotland to Manhattan to set her straight. But the world that she’s living in and the things she is doing are very, very modern – or at least contemporary to when Maxwell was writing this. So she’s experiencing the quite brutal dating scene of New York City. She’s not naïve, necessarily. But she gets chewed up and spit out in the worst way possible. It’s really kind of an upsetting, unpleasant plot, and you’re left feeling a little bit empty.
Sorry, it’s not maybe my favorite Maxwell story if we’re being honest and I am.
But it’s stuck with me, so there’s clearly something to say for it. I think it really comes back to the way that tone sets you up, that mock fairy tale feeling. You expect some kind of extreme mistake on her part or some kind of extreme action. For example, she wants to be pure but her instincts leave her undone. Or maybe she’s corrupt and evil inside, then she finally gets her comeuppance. Maybe she’s good but misunderstood and has to stay patient waiting for her prince.
But the story never tidies up the way you expect. It’s not ever so simple and streamlined as a fairy tale. She’s not doing anything particularly right or particularly wrong. Yet evil still finds her. So it leaves the reader, at least it left me, just kind of sad.
And that’s quite a trick on Maxwell’s part.
One day when she was with the children in the Park, she met a girl named Cathleen, who asked her to go with her to a dance hall on Eighty-sixth Street. This turned out to be very different from the Outer Hebrides, and just like the flicks. The next morning, her head was full of impressions, mostly of a sad young man who said he was in love with her and almost persuaded her to go home with him, and she was simultaneously pleased with herself for resisting temptation and sorry she hadn’t done it.
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