Manuel Muñoz recommended this to me as an example of a short story that covers a long period of time.
It starts with the narrator’s childhood, and puts her world in context. Her father is fighting in the U.S. Civil War and while he is away she dreams he speaks to her from heaven. Then it jumps through to her courtship and marriage, but each event, each stage of her life is given establishing detail and grounding before we move forward to the main events and location of the story — remote, provincial China, in a missionaries’ compound.
Manuel noted that despite the potentially alienating aspects of the story (the historical setting, the unfamiliar nearly unimaginable location, the strong religious mission of the narrator), his students were really into it. These elements are told without exoticization, as matter-of-fact and directly observed (did the author read genuine missionary accounts? She must have.) This is a (long) short story, but the events had the inevitable flow of a novel: there is love and marriage, decision and travel, birth and death, friendship and betrayal, politics and disaster. It’s all chronological order, none of it is flashback, and none of it feels rushed or shortchanged.
But theme is always there, always surrounding the characters, from the ghostly father in the beginning, to the children discussing heaven (The daughter would have flowers in hers, the son would have goats), to the final image of carrying our own death within us like a pregnancy, waiting all our lives for our death to be born. Unbelievable. Beautiful. Kick-ass.
This story would make a fabulous film. So much must be cut from a novel, to make room for the slowed-down time of a movie. But this could be done scene-by-scene, all events included, only slightly elaborated, and it would come out at a smooth 110 minutes. Do I say this because of that last scene, because I can see it in all the shouts and dust and swirls of color, I can see the lush cinematography, the pathos of the dying shot?
Damn. I think I liked this story. There’s a lot to be learned here.