‘On The Oregon Trail’ by Caitlin Horrocks

On The Oregon Trail by Caitlin Horrocks, 2009

The magic trick:

Layering more somber themes over the story’s original conceptual joke

This is one of those stories that relies strongly on its concept. Here that means turning the famed kids’ computer game The Oregon Trail into a narrative.

It’s funny. We’ve got oxen, dysentery, the funny gravestones.

But just as you’re starting to tire of the joke, something else creeps in. The narrative doesn’t only tell the story within the game. It also incorporates the experience of parents playing the computer game with their kids.

So the story becomes about parenting more than it is about some conceptual joke. A more somber tone rests over the comedy. Parental guilt? Adult selfishness? The way fun gives way to loss. It’s a surprisingly potent little story.

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

The selection:

Elias was a banker, so we left with more than most. $1,600 to spend at the outfitters—three yoke of oxen, 2000 pounds of food, boxes of bullets and spare parts: tongue, axle, wheel. Two sets of clothes for each of us. “What kind of clothes?” the children asked.

“Who knows?” I said. “The store only sold Clothes. In sets, though. That’s something.”

They asked what we would eat. “Food,” I said. “Just ‘Food.’ Make your peace with it.”

We left Independence in April and saw the first tombstone before we reached the Kansas River. Timmy, Susan, and Edgar ran to read it. Here lies Stinky, it read. He Stinks.

“That’s not very nice,” I said.

“I bet Stinky does,” the children said. “Stink. Now he does, anyway.”


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