‘The Loudest Voice’ by Grace Paley

The Loudest Voice by Grace Paley, 1959

The magic trick:

Using dialogue to set the scene

This is a Christmas story with Jews. Kind of a funny setup, but it’s a real situation. New York filled up with Jewish immigrants throughout the first half of the 20th century, and assimilation was a major concern. For Paley’s young narrator, that meant applying her talents to the school Christmas pageant. Again, it’s funny, and Paley is so amazing at generating comedy that you hardly notice that this is a serious consideration of cultural compromise. The key to making both tones work is the way she paints the setting so vividly. You really feel like you’re in the neighborhood, reconciling old and new traditions yourself with the gang. The descriptions are pretty cool. But it is the language that really makes it work. I know that’s not a very original reason to praise Grace Paley. Dialogue is kind of her thing. But it’s worth mentioning yet again. The words aren’t showy. The slang isn’t overwrought. It’s not trying to make you laugh or even advance the plot. It’s setting the scene. Perfectly. And that’s quite a trick on Paley’s part.

The selection:

There is a certain place where dumbwaiters boom, doors slam, dishes crash; every window is a mother’s mouth bidding the street shut up, go skate somewhere else, come home. My voice is the loudest.

There, my own mother is still as full of breathing as me and the grocer stands up to speak to her. “Mrs. Abramowitz,” he says, “people should not be afraid of their children.”

“Ah, Mr. Bialik,” my mother replies, “if you say to her or her father, ‘Ssh,’ they say, ‘In the grave it will be quiet’”

“From Coney Island to the cemetery,” says my papa. “It’s the same subway; it’s the same fare.”

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