Saturday, August 2, 2008

Brother's Keeper

So Write Anything, which is the successor to Write Stuff, has posted another link to a Writer's Digest short story award winner. This story was a winner in the thriller/suspense category.

Here are their questions about it and my answers:

1. Explain the title. In what way is it suitable to the story?
The title may actually be ironic. Solomon saves the life of Evan, a man to whom he owes nothing personally. But his remarks afterward make clear that he's concerned that Evan's spectacular and gory murder would cause publicity that might lead to Solomon's unmasking as a Union agent. It's not possible to conclude that Solomon acted out of a feeling of responsibility for Evan as a "brother" or fellow man.

2. What is the predominant element in the story - plot, theme, character, setting?
Mostly character, although setting plays its part. This story would not work without the unique cultural matrix of American slavery and the Civil War.

3. What sort of conflict confronts the leading character or characters?
In Evan's case, the conflict (of which he's completely unaware) is between his philandering ways and the outrage of the community's men. Solomon lives with a myriad of conflicts, but I would guess the one that has the most impact on his daily life is the need to appear stupid, slow and ignorant, when in fact he is none of these things.

4. How is the conflict resolved?
Neither of these conflicts is really resolved. Evan's life is saved and his attackers disposed of by Solomon, but we can't believe that they were the only two who knew what was going on. If nothing else, Maybelle's father and aunt certainly know that she has been with Evan and may be pregnant by him. Retribution has only been postponed.

Solomon's situation has changed: Evan now knows that Solomon is not what he seems, and should be able to figure out that Solomon is a Union agent. As noted above, Evan really has no secret to keep any more. It's hard to see why Evan wouldn't simply turn Solomon in, except perhaps for gratitude's sake. Or, Solomon may decide that now is the time to leave town and try to get to Union territory. In any case, no resolution takes place inside the story.

5. How does the author handle characterization?
a. by description?
b. conversation of the characters?
c. actions of the characters?
d. combination of these methods?

For Evan and Solomon, primarily c. For the two attackers, a mix of b. and c.

6. What is the high point, or climax, of the story?
Solomon's rescue of Evan.

7. Does this story create any special mood?
Not particularly.

8. Is this story realistic or true to life? Explain your answers by giving examples.
I'm dubious that (a) Emile and Rafe won't have told anyone what they're up to (b) no-one will figure that both of the murdered men are family of women who've been sleeping with Evan. Too much of the plot is predicated on the idea that no-one knows what's going on-- which suggests to me that the author has never lived in a small town.

9. What is the general theme of the story? What is the underlying theme?
I would say the theme is the contrast between careless young Evan and responsible old Solomon. Evan gets himself (and various women) into trouble through sheer thoughtlessness, and almost pays with his life. Solomon voluntarily and knowingly enters into danger as a spy, for a cause he believes in: he accepts the risk. In every way, the two men are opposites.

10. Did you identify with any of the characters?
No; they're remote from me in time, place, and culture.

11. Does the story contain a single effect or impression for the reader? If so, what?
None that really strikes me.

12. Name one major personality trait of each leading character, and tell how the author makes the reader conscious of this trait.
In Evan's case, thoughtlessness, reflected in the statement "But Evan was young. And he enjoyed the delights of the flesh too much to pay any attention." Also reflected in the fact that we never see him considering the possible consequences, for himself or the women he sleeps with.

In Solomon's case, decisiveness. This is hidden in the early part of the story, but is revealed very dramatically in his rescue of Evan.

13. Does the story have a moral? If not, what do you think the purpose of the author was?
Difficult to say. As noted under question 1, any moral statement about caring for one's fellow-man, regardless of how they treat one, is undercut by Solomon's other motivation.

14. Did you like it? Why or why not?
I like it better than the previous winning story that was posted on Write Stuff.

As a thriller/suspense story, I have to say it falls flat. Except for the attack on Evan and the rescue by Solomon, the pacing is pretty slow, and the climax is frankly completely predictable.

Overall, I think it's a well-meaning story, though the execution leaves something to be desired. The author's rendering of Southern dialects, both black and white, is clumsy and unconvincing, and the white characters are rather offensive hillbilly stereotypes. This may have been done to strengthen the hero Solomon by contrast, but I'm afraid it ends up having the opposite effect.

15. Finally, why do you think this story placed in the top five in the Short Story competition?
It's impossible to answer this question without seeing the other contestants.

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