‘Back Then’ by Mary Grimm

Back Then by Mary Grimm, 2019

The magic trick:

Keeping the story on an even keel with no fireworks or tomfoolery

I approach every story I read now looking for the magic trick. Two-thousand of these little web posts will do that to your brain. But I think anyone reading this around its 2019 publication date would start expecting some kind of magic trick. What it’s doing doesn’t seem to be enough. Not anymore. It’s a narrator looking back decades into her childhood, recalling various memories from different summer vacations on Lake Erie. The modern audience immediately says, “Where’s the meta commentary?” “Where’s the subversion?” “At the very least where is the shocking plot twist?”

I hope I don’t spoil the story to say there is none of the above. The story never attempts anything surprising or ambitious. And I think, folks, therein lies the magic. This is a wonderful story. It’s wonderfully written. There is not a single wasted sentence. Not a single misstep. That might not be exciting. It might not be particularly original. But it’s well worth your time.

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

The selection:

When we were little, we had had an hour of enforced rest between lunch and the afternoon swim, so that we wouldn’t get cramps and die in the water. It wasn’t clear to any of us what cramps were or how they would kill us. Probably our mother just needed a rest from our endless demands, our ceaseless movement. When we were too old for naps, we had “quiet time.” Books were permitted, but nothing active, not so much as a box of crayons. By the time I was thirteen and my sister ten, it was understood that we would simply stay out of the way for the hour that kept us from drowning. The something that was going on in my head made me want to avoid my sister and our cousins, and I spent a lot of these hours fooling around behind the cottages. There was nothing there but an expanse of gravel and a set of sagging clotheslines on which cottage dwellers hung their wet swimsuits and towels. Beyond the gravel were the inferior cottages, separated from us by a low white fence. The fence suggested that the space it enclosed was potentially a special one, but the yard belonging to those cottages was shabby and neglected, unworthy of protection. The gravel had migrated into the grass, which must have made it hard to mow—it was long, at least shin-high. There were objects in the yard—a tin pail, a bicycle wheel, a naked baby doll—scattered in no particular pattern, almost as if someone had stood at one end of the yard and thrown them out, their landing spot depending on the strength of that someone’s arm. When I loitered by the clotheslines, I spied on those cottages, hoping for something—I didn’t know what.


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