‘The Devil In Us’ by Maeve Brennan

The Devil In Us by Maeve Brennan, 1954

The magic trick:

Showing a young protagonist cope silently with the comic cruelness of her teachers

We get some good school daze fiction today from Maeve Brennan. It’s funny, light stuff on the surface. The trials and tribulations of a 13-year-old girl dealing with social stresses at school.

Except it’s a bit more than that, really.

The picture painted here of the Catholic church is pretty scathing in its airy way. Yes, the stakes are low. The nuns at school are making Young Maeve feel bad about the way she sings in choir class.

But the pettiness and meanness of the nuns is relentless. The injustice drives the reader crazy. Maeve, in the story, doesn’t fight back, though. She takes the verbal abuse without saying a word. She feels the stress of standing out now in school as one of the ostracized trouble makers, but doesn’t editorialize about the nuns’ cruelty.

She mostly just lets the situation speak for itself. As such, it’s an even more powerful indictment of the school.

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

The selection:

“Now let’s hear what these four can do by themselves. Give them a note, Sister.”

We took the note and set up a self-conscious but passable version of “The Spinning Wheel.”

“They sound more like Singer sewing machines than spinning wheels,” Sister Hildegarde said coldly when we had finished.

“A pity you can’t feel inclined to sing like that in class,” said Sister Veronica. She turned to Sister Hildegarde. “You see they have voices, Sister. It’s sheer stubbornness that keeps them from doing their part.”

“Now that they know they’re being watched, perhaps they’ll do a little better,” Sister Hildegarde said in a discouraging voice.

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