‘Young Francis Whitehead’ by William Maxwell

Young Francis Whitehead by William Maxwell, 1939

The magic trick:

Showing a single simple idea but doing it very well

This is a small story, a compact story. Certainly not a story doing a lot of things all at once. But what it is doing, it does very well.

Essentially, we have a kind of a triangular conversation between a mother, her son, and a family friend who’s visiting the house. And young Francis is at an age where insecurity is blending with a brashness that is making him kind of just defiantly independent. He has to prove his independence with his every action. Every single word that comes out of his mouth has to let you know that he’s his own man now.

His mother reacts to this calmly. She talks through him, over him, against him, as if nothing is wrong. Maybe she’s putting on a good face for her guest. More probably she’s trying to rationalize it away for herself.

Either way, we clearly see that this defense mechanism is not going to prove effective for her. And that’s about it. That’s what the story shows and what it leaves us with. And that’s plenty.

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

The selection:

“Providence,” Francis said from the doorway. He came in and sat down quietly and stretched his long legs out in front of him. His hair was still wet, but it was combed nearly back from his ears. He had flannel trousers on, and a white shirt, and an old tweed coat. He was also wearing heavy leather boots that were laced as far as his ankles and came halfway up his shins. Miss Avery let her eyes wander from boots to coat, to the right-hand pocket of the coat, which had been ripped open by accident last fall when Francis was home for Thanksgiving. The cloth had been torn a little, too, but it was all right now, Miss Avery decided. She had made it as good as new.

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