The Years Of My Birth by Louise Erdrich, 2011
The magic trick:
Creating a decision for the protagonist that is a uniquely no-lose situation for the reader
This is such a good story. A recent Pulitzer winner, Erdrich sets up a very dramatic situation and then finds a way to move the plot to an even more dramatic development.
Tuffy, left physically disabled by her twin brother’s presence in the womb, is rejected at birth by her mother. A Native American family adopts and raises her. The birth mother only shows up in her life decades later when she needs a favor.
What will Tuffy do?
What does the reader want Tuffy to do?
It’s the special kind of literary situation that is a no-lose. If Tuffy is receptive to her birth mother, her kindness is so beyond the reader’s expectations we are inspired by her character. If Tuffy rejects her mother, the reader can revel in what feels like justice.
And that’s quite a trick on Erdrich’s part.
Every morning until I was about eleven, Betty and her husband, Albert, tried to straighten me by stretching out my legs. They woke me before the other children and brought me into the kitchen. I drank a glass of thin, blue milk by the woodstove. Then Betty sat in a kitchen chair and put me in her lap. Albert sat across from us in another chair.
“Put your feet out, Tuffy,” he said.
I put my feet in Albert’s hands, and he pulled me one way while Betty pulled the other. Slowly, as I grew, my legs untwisted, though one was always a little shorter than the other. I was the youngest of their four children—it was Sheryl whom Betty had been nursing when she cared for me in the hospital. Their older son, Cedric, gave me the name Tuffy because he knew that once I went to school I would get a nickname anyway. He didn’t want it to be one that mocked my rolling walk or my head. My head—so misshapen when I was born that the doctor had diagnosed a birth defect—was still a bit flat on one side, where I had been crushed in the womb by my twin. But it had been shaped enough by Betty’s squeezing and kneading that by the time I was old enough to look in a mirror I thought I was pretty.
Neither Betty nor Albert ever told me I was wrong; it was Sheryl who gave me the news.
“Tuffy, you are so ugly you’re cute,” she said.
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