The Mountain Day by Jean Stafford, 1956
The magic trick:
Telling the story of everything being perfect, leaving the reader’s own pessimistic suspicion to drive the suspense
We’re off to Colorado this week.
I gather that this isn’t considered to be classic Stafford. Perhaps not her most anthologized, and that’s fine. But sometimes maybe good stories fall through the cracks. I’d argue this one should continue to find its way into print. If not particularly inventive, it’s still an excellent story.
Our narrator is an 18-year-old Bryn Mawr student, enjoying a summer of privilege and young love. The bulk of her tale is so pleased, so happy, so uniformly absent of conflict that the effect is some kind of perverse tension. The reader assumes something must go wrong soon or else we won’t have a story.
It’s an interesting way to put the burden on the reader to generate the suspense.
And that’s quite a trick on Stafford’s part.
We had our lunch at the top of the world, sitting on saddle blankets spread out upon waxy yellow glacier lilies, which grew beside a snowdrift that some exotic bacteria had made the color of raspberry sherbet. We had cold fried chicken and tomato sandwiches and melon balls and lemony iced tea; it was unquestionably the best meal I had ever eaten in my life. I suddenly remembered Mary and Eileen and their picnic; they would be sitting among the wildflowers, eating dainty nasturtium sandwiches and telling each other spooky ghost stories in their delicious Dublin voices, and I thought, Everyone is happy today; this is the happiest day in the history of the world.
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