February 21: “Village 113” by Anthony Doerr

Happy Sunday, Story366! Today, I’m kicking off a full (seven-day) week of posts about authors from Bowling Green State University’s MFA program, my alma mater and the school at which I spent eighteen years, as a student, an instructor, and an editor of Mid-American Review. A bevy of successful writers have come out of the program, and once I compiled books by seven BG writers at once, I knew I’d do a Falcon-themed week.

I already covered two BG writers, Jean Thompson and Tessa Mellas, early in the project, and I know of a few collections coming out later in the year (Matt Bell, Jeff Fearnside, and Dustin M. Hoffman), still leaving me with plenty of authors to cover this week. To kick things off, I’ve chosen a story from Antony Doerr’s most recent collection, Memory Wall, from 2010. Doerr has written one book since—All the Light We Cannot See, which snagged the Pulitzer Prize this past year—perhaps making him the program’s most successful grad, if major literary prizes make one successful.

Doerr’s first book, The Shell Collector, sprouted a couple of already-anthologized stories, “The Caretaker” and “The Hunter’s Wife,” two really fantastic pieces, both of which I’ve taught in my classes for years. It almost seems like those two stories have always existed, are just syllabi standards, like “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” or “Hills Like White Elephants.” When you teach those same stories, over and over, you start to identify those authors with those stories in particular. In that regard, reading something new from Doerr was like reading something new by O’Connor or Hemingway. Through the few stories from Memory Wall that I read, it was almost like they were found stories, as if Doerr had stopped writing years ago and suddenly someone found these in an envelope in the bottom desk drawer (even tough I’ve had this book for five years). It’s weird, I know, but imagine teaching “The Lottery” over and over again, and suddenly deciding to read a different Shirley Jackson story. It’s kind of like that.

My favorite story so far in Memory Wall is “Village 113,” a story that feels like a hallmark Anthony Doerr story. Doerr has never been afraid to set a story in a foreign country, or at least a faraway place, or to use protagonists that don’t fit his own profile. I’ve always admired how he pulls that off, whether it’s a small town Montana hunter in “The Hunter’s Wife,” or the African refugee in “The Caretaker,” writing so far outside of himself. Doerr has traveled extensively, has lived in different parts of the world, and does a lot of research before writing a story, but that doesn’t make it easy to do. In “Village 113,” Doerr takes on an elderly Chinese woman as his protagonist. No matter how much your read or how long you visit, it’s impressive to pull something like this off, but to Doerr, it seems to be a natural skill, one that renders his collections eclectic, worldly, and unpredictable.

Said elderly Chinese woman in “Village 113” is the seed keeper of a tiny village along a river, meaning she is in charge of keeping seeds for the various plants the village grows each year. She has thousands upon thousands of seeds, from dozens of different plants, most of them food, seeds that descend as far back as the village itself. It’s an old-school job for sure, as most of the rest of the world just runs to the nursery, or even the grocery store, and picks up an envelope of whatever they want for seventy-nine cents. There’s a sense of history with seed-keeping, though, knowing that the pumpkin seeds she keeps can be traced back generations, each new crop vetting another batch of seeds. It’s like a photo album for this village, only through agriculture. What an original character for a short story. Just reading and learning about her, to think that someone like this exists now, or ever did, is enough to sell me on it. Doerr also takes full advantage of all of the obvious metaphors (seeds) and themes (tradition vs. progress).

The story in “Village 113” is incited by a dam, the need for the government to flood the seed keeper’s ancient village to build a technological wonder, displacing every resident. Everyone is offered an apartment in a resettlement zone, and either a government job or a year’s wages. Most residents jump at the offer, and, as the Village Director states, they’ll advance fifty years over night, electricity twenty-four hours a day, etc. There are holdouts, people who don’t want spinning microwave ovens or tumbling clothes driers, and the seed keeper is one of them. Another key naysayer is a retired schoolteacher, Ke, an old soul who knows a village is more than geographical coordinates or the wood that built their homes. Neither the seed keeper nor Ke is willing to let go, though the seed keeper has an engineer son (who loves the dam, as any good engineer would) to carry her to the city. It’s funny, I read “Village 113” right as a minor news story popped up on the Internet, about China displacing nine thousand people to build a giant telescope. Reading that story right before reading “Village 113” perhaps made it a bit more real, but truth be told, it’s Doerr’s mastery over the characters, the setting, and the details that sells this story: I was there, in that village, from the first page, never once questioning the veracity of a single choice. It’s one of Doerr’s gifts, one that allows him to write about French and German kids during World War II and score major awards.

The seed keeper and Ke cross paths again, the flooding date looming over their heads, and these two naysayers take different paths as the story winds down. Doerr restrains himself from overdramatizing the flood, a fact (especially in China) that is just that, a fact. No one chains themselves to their porch, no great intersession keeps the project from moving forward. What we get is people who are forced to change, to abandon the past, characters who, for themselves, at least, will never forget, never adapt. Will it matter, once they’re gone? Doerr doesn’t tell us, and we wonder if a certain kind of seed will ever come to harvest.

Lots of talented and successful writers have come out of Bowling Green’s MFA program, one of the most notable ones being Anthony Doerr. In his early forties, Doerr has already achieved the highest honors of the literary world, and hopefully, he’s just getting started, that he has more books ahead of him than behind him. Memory Wall is just another testament to his profound talent, and if you’ve somehow haven’t heard his name or read his work, it’s time to catch up.

Anthony Doerr