‘Small Avalanches’ by Joyce Carol Oates

Small Avalanches by Joyce Carol Oates, 1974

The magic trick:

Playing with ideas and themes from previous stories in her catalogue

Not a writer typically associated with Colorado, but she takes up the Rocky Mountains in the one.

“Small Avalanches” coyly plays off two early Oates stories.

It begins like “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” with a man’s frightening pursuit of a young girl. But at the tension peaks, we revisit Oates’s “At The Seminary.” The leverage in the story shifts to the girl. She doesn’t even seem to realize her own power. Instinct kicks in, and we watch her realize womanhood right before our eyes – just as the protagonist does in “Seminary.”

You certainly don’t need to have read the previous stories to enjoy this one. But it’s a neat way to stitch ideas together. And that’s quite a trick on Oates’s part. 

The selection:

“You’re a brave little girl to go around barefoot,” the man said, right next to me. “Or are your feet tough on the bottom?”

I didn’t know what he was talking about because I was worried; then I heard his question and said vaguely, “I’m all right,” and started to walk faster. I felt a tingling all through me like the tingling from the Pepsi-Cola in my mouth.

“Do you always walk so fast?” The man laughed.

“Oh I don’t know.”

“Is that all you can say? Nancy I-Don’t-Know! That’s a funny name – is it foreign?”

This made me start to laugh again. I was walking fast, then I began to run a few steps. Right away I was out of breath. That was strange – I was out of breath right away.

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