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Thursday, November 25, 2004  

Reading: 'Lost' Chopin is worth finding

Kate Chopin is one of those writers who was not prolific, but has earned a place in our memories anyway. She was born Catherine O'Flaherty in 1850, a native of the volatile state of Missouri. It is the rare class in American literature that does not include her classic, The Awakening, in its syllabus. Like other women writers who were in danger of being forgotten, Chopin's reputation has seen a resurgence since feminists spearheaded the creation of women's studies. It was with considerable pleasure that I recently discovered some short stories by Chopin that I had not read.

As someone who can never leave the house without something to read stashed on her person, I still have reason to own a personal digital assistant (PDA). It can be tucked in my purse and taken it out when an impromptu opportunity to read presents itself. Having created some additional free time this week, I set out to remedy my neglected ebook downloads to my Palm Tungsten C. I buy some ebooks, usually from Fictionwise or PalmOne. But, I really prefer to locate free ebooks online. One can find a weallth of no longer copyrighted American, British and French masterpieces. Less well-known works, including some by women and minority writers, are available in library collections. Among the short stories I downloaded and read yesterday and today are three that definitely confirm Chopin's expertise.

~ "Ma'aame Pelagi" would fall victim to the Myth of the Genteel South in the hands of a less capable writer. Pelagi is the elder spinster daughter of a deceased planter. Her dream for the last 30 years, since Union soldier's burned the plantation's mansion, has been to restore it to its former glory. She and her younger sister, Pauline, reside in a spartan cottage and drink their coffee black. Every penny earned from their crops is hoarded toward the eventual, and still distant, goal. Their sleep walking lives change when their traveling salesman brother sends his teenaged daughter to live with them. The ingenuet initially makes an effort to accept the loss of the social and mental stimulation she thrived on. But, she soon reacts to the sluggish life of the sisters with physical and emotional malaise. Either she must really live again or she will die. Ma'aame Pelagi must choose between restoring the dream house of her own youth or saving the life of the youngest member of her family. Chopin captures the cost of the choice in a way that leaves the reader stunned.

~ "Ozeme's Holiday" is the kind of story that O'Henry might have written had he had not been blinded by racism. Ozeme is a working man who revels in his annual week-long holiday. He borrows a horse and buggy and goes "broading" miles from home. Ozeme's holiday starts off fortuitously enough. Spic and span and ensconced in a buckboard pulled by a tranquil horse, he decides to spend the night with older friends before heading to a community where he knows the young folks will be festive. The elderly couple isn't home, so he detours to drop by the shack of the former housekeeper at a plantation where he worked. Aunt Tildy isn't faring well. The gnarled old woman has re-injured her bad hand and her adolescent grandson is down with malaria. Meanwhile, their ripened cotton crop will be ruined if the weather turns. People who understand the mores of the South will know there is an easy answer for Ozeme. He is a white man, so he can keep going. At the next gathering, he might regale the crowd with jokes by shiftless Negroes. Ozeme spends his holiday helping nurse the boy back to health and picking cotton. After his return home, he keeps the experience secret.

~ "The Father of Desiree's Baby" is the most predictable of the three stories, though it is about a topic America has yet to come to grips with. Desiree is a foundling. She turned up on a successful plantation and toddled right into the childless owners' hearts. The next heart she conquers is one that turns cold, however. The French-born heir to one of Louisiana's greatest fortunes, Armand Aubigny, brings his bride home to a large plantation where her every desire is easily met. The two live in bliss for nearly a year. Armand seems fully gratified when she presents him with a healthy son. But, as the newborn matures, the peaceful aura of Desiree's life dissolves. The slaves are properly subservient, but seem ill at ease around the mother and child. Armand stops talking to his wife and averts his eyes when his child is present. Desiree has an epiphany when the baby is three months old. A small 'quadroon' boy is assigned to fan the infant in his crib. Desiree's world quakes when she notices the resemblance between the boy and and her baby. The foundling mother and her child are sent away to perish. Armand burns their clothing and furnishings publicly. The circle of white aristocrats he has cast his lot with never considers that none of them have ever seen his mother -- who never left France.

I must confess that even though I was not surprised by the O. Henry ending, I much admire "The Father of Desiree's Baby," for a pessimistic reason. It appeals to me because Chopin masterfully captures the cold hearts of so many human beings. We live in a country in which the Myth of Family Values is so much a part of the national lying contest people seldom acknowledge its falsehood. Yet, there is little doubt in my mind, that given the choice between a life of privilege and jettisoning spouse and child, many people would make the same choice Armand Aubigny does.

Kate Chopin's other short stories are also works of a fine artist who deserves our attention. In addition to sometimes being available free as ebooks, many of them are in the anthology, Bayou Folk . Several collections of all of her writing in one volume are in print. You may also want to read Chopin's first novel, At Fault .

Reasonably related

~ A biography of Kate Chopin can be read here.

~ Read a brief biography and buy ebooks at the Palm software store.

~ I download free ebooks from University of Virginia's E Book Library for MS Reader and Palm Devices . The Chopin short stories reviewed here are available there.

10:16 PM