‘The Tin Butterfly’ by Mary McCarthy

The Tin Butterfly by Mary McCarthy, 1951

The magic trick:

Spending the vast majority of the story telling the reader about things, before finally pivoting into the expecting “show” anecdote

McCarthy goes deep into the realm of memoir here, taking us back to a five-year period in her childhood when she and her three brothers, suddenly orphaned by the 1918 flu epidemic, lived in Minneapolis with an aunt and her husband.

I read this expecting the usual short story rhythms. Two pages or so of setup, followed by a specific anecdote or scene illustrating or extending the themes established in the introduction. That’s not what this is though. This is a very long story, and the vast majority of it could be called setup. McCarthy retains narrative control over things for a very long time, telling, telling, telling, and telling – not showing.

It’s only near the very end that the story finds its specific scene, an anecdote about the narrator’s younger brother’s tin butterfly. It may try your patience, especially if you’re like me expecting a certain rhythm and flow that you don’t get. But if you stick with it, you’ll be pleased, I think. The result – lengthy tell and condensed show – is a well-drawn picture of a uniquely difficult childhood.

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

The selection:

He collected coupons and tinfoil, bundles of newspaper for the old rag-and-bone man (thus interfering seriously with our school paper drives), free samples of cheese at Donaldson’s, free tikets given out  by a neighborhood movie house to the first installment of a serial – in all the years we lived with him, we never saw a full-length movie but only those truncated beginnings. He was also fond of streetcar rides (could the system have been municipally owned?), soldiers’ monuments, cemeteries, big, coarse flowers likes cannas and cockscombs set in beds by city gardeners. Museums did not appeal to him, though we did go one night with a large crowd to see Marshal Foch on the steps of the Art Institute. He was always weighing himself on penny weighing machines.

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