‘A Bird In The House’ by Margaret Laurence

A Bird In The House by Margaret Laurence, 1964

The magic trick:

Holding back until the end a crucial event that unlocks the entire story’s meaning

Another knockout of a story from Laurence.

This is a story where the events of the story can be summarized in about three sentences. So why is it 30 pages?

Laurence builds the story not with action but with conversation. Vanessa, the 10-year-old narrator, is constantly building her understanding of the world around her through conversations with her family members.

In this story, because the plot is so back-loaded, those conversations build for a while without any indication that there is a blueprint at all.

Sure, some of them are poignant, but what is the point?

The key plot development, which will go unrevealed here, answers that question quite suddenly.

It’s one of those stories that demand a re-read so that you can properly grasp just how poignant those conversations were earlier in the text now that you’ve seen the blueprint and have an understanding of what the final building looks like.

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

The selection:

I went into the den and found my father there. He was sitting in the leather-cushioned armchair beside the fireplace. He was not doing anything, just sitting and smoking. I stood beside him, wanting to touch the light-brown hairs on his forearm, but thinking he might laugh at me or pull his arm away if I did.

“I’m sorry,” I said, meaning it.

“What for, honey?”

“For not going.”

Oh – that. What was the matter?”

I did not want him to know, and yet I had to tell him, make him see.

“They look silly,” I blurted. “Marching like that.”

For a minute I thought he was going to be angry. It would have been a relief to me if he had been. Instead, he drew his eyes away from mine and fixed them above the mantelpiece where the sword hung, the handsome and evil-looking crescent in its carved bronze sheath that some ancestor had once brought from the Northern Frontier of India.

“Is that the way it looks to you?” he said.

I felt in his voice some hurt, something that was my fault. I wanted to make everything all right between us, to convince him that I understood, even if I did not. I prayed that Grandmother MacLeod would stay put in her room, and that my mother would take a long time in the kitchen, giving Roddie his lunch. I wanted my father to myself, so I could prove to him that I cared more about him than any of the others did. I wanted to speak in some way that would be more poignant and comprehending than anything of which my mother could possibly be capable. But I did not know how.

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