‘A Half-Pint Of Old Darling’ by Wendell Berry

A Half-Pint Of Old Darling by Wendell Berry, 1993

The magic trick:

Leaving some doubt about the protagonist’s candor, even as the overall portrait is charmingly sentimental

It’s Wendell Berry Week on the magic trick site. Brilliant pictures of old Kentucky.

This is such a great story. You could do much worse with 25 minutes of your life than reading this one. Ptolemy and Miss Minnie are a married couple in 1920 Kentucky, and certainly much of the story’s appeal lies in Berry’s ability to recreate the charm of their relationship. But this isn’t small-town nostalgia mush. Behind the sentimentality and the humor – there is plenty of both, here – is a dark interior. There is the question of Tol’s occasional alcoholic beverage, and the notion that he is lying to his wife. It’s very much in doubt even as the story ends. So it’s sweet and not-so-sweet. But even if the worst is true, it only makes the reader see the couple as all the more realistic. And that’s quite a trick on Berry’s part.

The selection:

The thought struck him then that he might not get back to Hargrave before his ewes started to lamb, and he was out of whiskey. Tol always liked to keep a little whiskey on hand during lambing. Some sheepmen would say that if you had a weak lamb and a bottle of whiskey, it paid better to knock the lamb in the head and drink the whiskey yourself. But Tol believed that “a drop or two,” on a bitter night, would sometimes encourage a little heart to continue beating—as, despite his religion and Miss Minnie, he believed it had sometimes encouraged bigger ones to do.

And so, without giving the matter much thought, he went to the drugstore where he was used to buying the occasional half-pint that he needed. And then, as he entered the door, he thought, “Prohibition!” And then he thought, “Well, no harm in trying.”

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