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New Yorker Fiction Review #111: "These Short, Dark Days" by Alice McDermott

Issue: Aug. 24, 2015

Story: "These Short, Dark Days" by Alice McDermott

Rating: $

Review: In this very depressingly-named short story, Alice McDermott takes a look into the psychology of a middle-aged nun who chooses to exert her own will in a quiet attempt to thwart the workings of male-dominated church dogma. She does this by attempting to have the body of a young male suicide placed in the Catholic cemetery, by obfuscating the cause of his death.

Honestly, this story is kinda boring. For one thing, the prose is very "procedural," (this happened, then this happened, then this happened) and the action not interesting enough in-and-of-itself for that to be exciting. The most interesting part was in the very beginning when at least we get a bit of the psychology of the character in question, and we can sense the doom that's about to befall him. Doom, after all, is eternally interesting.

One thing that I did think was cool about this story, however, was its "timelessness." Perhaps because I'm a bad reader or perhaps because the story actually seems to float free of any time-period, I felt as though McDermott pulls this story off without any kitschy "time-travel" clues to indicate that this story in fact takes place around the turn of last century. No one is listening to a Victrola or riding a horse or talking about President McKinley or whatever. Other than the fact that there's a nun walking around on the street (and how often do you see those any more), and that the young man is a train conductor on the B.R.T. (Brooklyn Rapid Transit), there's very little to suggest this couldn't have happened even in the modern day.

This one takes a while to build, but once you start to realize what Sister St. Savior is trying to do, and can start to root for her, the story starts to get more interesting. However, since Sister St. Savior is introduced about 1/4 of the way in the story, almost incidentally, I didn't really grasp the fact that it was "her story" until much too far along into the piece. That, I did not like.

What saves this story, ultimately, is the content. I kind of like this idea of a small, seemingly insignificant person, whom time and history have forgotten, and her private and silent war for what she thinks is right. How many people like this are to be credited for the advance of human and civil rights everywhere throughout history? A worthwhile question and one which does not get explored enough.


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