February 13: “The Sudden Trees” by H.E. Francis

Story366 serves a lot of purposes. Firstly, it gets me reading stories I haven’t read, a lot of them, and as a result, I am supposed to become a better writer. The learning part is already happening, because in the forty-four days I’ve been doing this, I’ve noticed things about point of view, perspective, tense, and occasion that I’ve never noticed before, nuances more than anything, but how differently every author handles these subtle but crucial elements of writing stories. It gives me new perspective, as both a writer and a teacher of writing. I just want to hold up two stories, side by side, like Laura van den Berg’s story from yesterday and Courtney Eldridge’s story from a month ago, point out the minor differences in approaches, but how they completely change the story, how it’s told, how it comes off. It’s been a real education for me. Score, Story366.

It also allows me to work through the massive inventory of books that I’ve had on my shelves for months, years, and yes, decades, books I’ve never opened and have always promised myself to read one day. That’s why they’re there, right? Honestly, I have a collector’s personality, so once I start assembling like things, of any sort, I need as many as I can get, be it G.I. Joe toys when I was a kid, comic books when I was a teen, Simpsons episodes (I taped them with my VCR) and toys when I was in my twenties, or toys for my own kids (who are not collectors, and could care less if they have all the Star Wars Angry Birds telepods, so I should stop driving to every Target, Walmart, Best Buy, and GameStop in Southwest Missouri looking for Boba Goddamn Fett). Story collections are like that for me now, and since I’ve started this blog, it’s become more a problem than a hobby—check out my FB home picture and realize how those three stacks only scratch the surface.

The book I’ve undoubtedly had on my shelf the longest is The Sudden Trees by H.E. Francis. It’s a large, beautiful book, one I got it shortly after Mid-American Review accepted a story by Francis, way back when I was in grad school, when I was a staff reader; for some reason, I’m thinking I was the one who found the story in the pile, and even more foggily, I remember yoinking it from the office soon after, as it’s a signed copy and I know I’ve never met Francis in person. But for whatever reason—touched upon many times in this blog already—I just never got to it. It might have been packed away for a while after a move, or misplaced when alphabetizing, or whatever. But I was eager, with this project, to read books like Francis’, to see what I’ve been saving it for, to finally relieve myself of the burden of avoidance.

For today’s post, I read the first and title story to The Sudden Trees, and man, it’s a sad story. “The Sudden Trees” tells the tale of Darren Trueblood, an elementary-level teacher at an orphanage who has taken a special interest in one of his students, poor Rhoda, a frail, precocious girl whose health is declining, and rapidly.  Rhoda is sweet, all the kids like her, and when her thin legs force her to the ground, everyone jumps to help. It’s heartwarming in that way, which makes the principal’s decision even harder: Rhoda is not best served as a resident of this facility any more, and should be transferred to a place merely referred to as a “home.” There she will die instead of being a distraction to the others. Darren, powerless, has to watch as she’s transferred out, seeing the empty desk the next day as a grave.

This leads Darren to make a rash decision, to gain legal custody of Rhoda, to take her home for the summer and take care of her. Somehow, arrangements are made, and Rhoda moves in with Darren, he becoming her twenty-four-hour caregiver, giving her dignity and love, watching her decline as we, Francis’ readers, do at the same time. That’s pretty much the story there, and it’s written beautifully, Francis a master of prose and description.

What’s really intriguing, even a bit disturbing to me about “The Sudden Trees” is how Francis skirts what I think of as elephant in the room: Isn’t this all a little weird? A grown, single man, with no nursing or healthcare experience, suddenly in charge a little dying girl? Rhoda seems to have some sort of muscular degenerative disease, like MS or Lou Gehrig’s, the way her walking stops, then her basic motor functions, and it’s odd that any state would grant Daren custody, with no mention of special facilities, equipment, or even training. This is all on top of the more personal stuff that I don’t want to think too much about; does anyone at the school, in the legal system, at least wonder about the propriety of all this, of Darren’s intentions? Francis just avoids all of it, though, sort of like how animators deal with animal genitalia in cartoons: They just don’t draw them in, as if they don’t exist, e.g., when Tramp from Lady and the Tramp rolls on his back, he’s a canine Ken doll and that’s that. Francis does the same thing with the really delicate issues here, how Rhoda is cared for by this man. Maybe he gets away with it because Rhoda’s decline is such a gut shot, page after page, and most readers probably won’t to think about the logistics, or if this setup is at all realistic .

H.E. Francis is a writer with a long history of success, many books and stories published, with distinctions like O. Henry Awards and Pushcart Prizes and Best American Short Stories inclusions. He was also a professor for a long time at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, and was so esteemed that they named a literary prize after him, a competition for which writers could still enter in 2015 (though is on hiatus in 2016). He’s in his nineties now, and maybe he’s still writing. If you haven’t run into his stories in the last seventy years, he could be worth checking out.

 

HE Francis

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5 thoughts on “February 13: “The Sudden Trees” by H.E. Francis

  1. I randomly picked up this story a few days ago because of this blog post, and I’m glad I did.

    Francis achieves such a beautiful rhythm in the way he writes Darren and Rhoda’s days together, all the while ramping up his attachment as she drain-circles her final end.

    And yes, you’re absolutely right about The Elephant in the Room (this is what made me pick up the story in the first place; I’m always intrigued by the the story *behind* the story), but I was really impressed by how underplayed this element of the narrative was. There is a brief mention about Darren’s failed relationship, but his inner restlessness, I think, was about something more–he was looking for someone to throw himself into wholly, someone/thing to commit to. His devotion to Rhoda was so instant and so complete that it almost wasn’t personal at all, it almost had nothing to do with her. There’s something that speaks to this in the last couple of lines in the story.

    I’ll definitely be looking for more from this author.

    Thanks for posting it!

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    1. I’m curious, though, if you think it’s out-and-out inappropriate. I mean, aside from the fact that he wouldn’t have the experience or facilities or equipment to handle a child with her condition.

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      1. Julia

        My reaction to this relationship is complex. Part of me *must* find it inappropriate on some level—I think Francis anticipates that from his reader, and uses that tension to drive the story forward.

        But, to Francis’ credit, he wisely rooted the story in some blameless, pure part of Darren’s psyche—Darren just seemed *driven* to take care of Rhoda for reasons that were beyond his control, and, likely, many-fold. How much of his desire to take care of Rhoda was altruistic? How much of it was to drive away some sense of failure in his life as it existed? How badly did he need a faithful lover that he was willing to accept a facsimile in a young girl on her deathbed? The pie chart of his reasons probably includes all those things.

        Yes, I definitely felt uncomfortable when Darren and Rhoda showed up to the fair and the other students saw them together; I wondered what those other students thought and what kind of gossip flew around the next day. Of course when the story described Darren and Rhoda’s, um, increasingly cozy sleeping arrangements, I got really, really uncomfortable. But Francis knew that I would. I think he wanted me to be uncomfortable, and knew that that discomfort would keep me reading. I think Darren’s obsession and complete faithfulness to the task, almost to the point of martyrdom, were what stopped me from just writing him off as a sleazebag.

        And that ending! Just ambiguous enough to disturb!

        Masterfully done.

        What do you think? Did you read their relationship as inappropriate, and if you did, how did it affect your reading of the story?

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      2. To me, he more or less avoids it. I think he’s painting this as a kind, loving act by someone who’s trying to give a dying girl a decent, human exit. I don’t think he wants us to think about how inappropriate it is for a man to just take on this responsibility with no training, no facilities, no help, let alone how this poor child is bathed and dressed every day. I think we’re supposed to focus on how loving he is, how much charity he’s giving, and just forget the rest, not focus on it. Maybe you’re right—maybe Francis knows what he’s doing the whole time, but in the end, thinking about it more, I’d say that there’s elephants in the room that make this a tad bit unrealistic.

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  2. You’re right—Francis totally manipulates our focus. He does depict Darren’s acts as kind, but, to my reading, there is definitely an undercurrent of desperation on Darren’s part (that comes to the fore particularly in his reactions to his friend Elaine “intruding” on the space he’s created with Rhoda). And maybe the reader isn’t *supposed* to think about how appropriate Darren’s behavior is, and the reality of him bathing and dressing Rhoda every day, but an incisive reader can’t not think about those things.—it’s part of the story’s “problem,” to my view, Darren’s dedication to (slash-obsession-with) a task he’s not fit for.

    Would you call this story strict realism? I’m not sure I would. The cool thing is that the story’s separation/slight departure from reality does, in some weird way, mimic Darren’s sort-of flight from reality in taking on Rhoda at all. Was Rhoda receiving the best physical care possible? I doubt it. Was she receiving even baseline physical care from this inexperienced person? Perhaps not. But she was given an attention she’d probably never experienced. The arrangement worked for her as well as it worked for him, at least in some ways.

    I love all the lines this story walks. I love that it makes me question its realism.

    What do you recommend I read next by Francis? I’m excited to know more.

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