September 4: “Saving Butterfly McQueen” by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Way to Sunday, Story366! Today is an especially special Sunday, as both my boys slept in, meaning I could sleep in. Even better, since it’s a holiday tomorrow, I might just sleep in two days in a row, which is really unprecedented. It’s sad I’m not leading with all the great adventures I had or will have in my spare free time, but instead am focusing on the fact I might get six-seven hours of sleep instead of my normal three-five. That’s a good indicator of where I am these days, I suppose.

In the end, today was a bit of a bust. We’d planned on going to the zoo, going to do something fun, but before I knew it, I was watching the Cubs game—which was on national TV, meaning I could watch it on my TV instead of my computer—and then the game went thirteen innings and even more of the day was eaten up and we more or less missed the chance at the big, all-day outing. After the Cubs won—dramatically—we went out for pizza and hung out at a playground until it was dark and that was it.

Tomorrow, I’ve had no choice but to barter the entirety of the Labor Day Cub game—a noon start in Milwaukee—for a day out with the family. And really, that’s okay. I’ve spent most of my days this summer watching that team, probably more time than I’ve done anything (and that’s not even including the twenty games at which I sold beer). We deserve an all-day family outing. We will get fresh air. We will get some exercise. We will stop for a bite to eat at a restaurant we pass. We will log some miles on the car. Summer will got out in style.

Today I also read a few stories from Megan Mayhew Bergman‘s collection Almost Famous Women, out from Scribner. After investigating the book, reading a story or two, I realized the title isn’t just a reference to a story or a line found in the book, but a theme, the basis of the collection. Most of the stories are fictions written about actual women, women on the fringe of fame, many of them the sister, daughter, or associate of a more famous person, such as Norma, the filmmaker sister of Edna St. Vincent Millay, or Lucia Joyce, daughter of James. Each story that fits this bill is preceded by a photo of the nearly famous woman, then the story comes and tells a tale that Bergman makes up about the person, based on some extensive research. So, the stories are meant to be realistic, historical fiction, nothing absurd or out of the ordinary, Madame Curie in a rock band or Mata Hari as an astronaut, nothing like that.

I started with a story that actually didn’t fit this bill, a piece called “The Lottery, Redux,” which is exactly what it sounds like, a retelling of “The Lottery,” what Bergman describes in a notes section in the back of the book as a prompt from McSweeney’s to “cover” a famous story. I then read the Norma Millay story, followed by “Saving Butterfly McQueen,” the story I’m focusing on tonight.

When I saw the title and the name Butterfly McQueen, I was sure this had something to do with the movie Papillon, the Steve McQueen movie; “papillon” is butterfly in French. No, though, just a weird coincidence (note, I thought this before I figured out the collection’s theme). In reality, Butterfly McQueen was an actor in the early half of the twentieth century, a woman whose most famous line and part is in Gone With the Wind—she plays the woman who yells, “I don’t know nothin’ about birthin’ no babies!” to Vivien Leigh. I think that qualifies her as almost famous, as she was indeed an actor in movies, but not someone whom the everyday movie fan or American can name.

In any case, the story Bergman writes is about this young medical student, the frontstory taking place in the early days of her gross human anatomy class, the one where the first-years have to cut open the cadaver over the course of the semester to figure out what’s what (and to weed out the squeamish ones). She and her team have a large man, whom they dub “Vegas,” and they go at him, learning the mysteries of the body, as well as how much they have to separate this dead, formaldehyde-filled thing from a human being, the distance they have to create to do what they want to do. They cut, the prod, they saw, and before long, our protagonist starts to think about Butterfly McQueen.

Bergman takes us then into our protagonist’s backstory, back not that many years before, when she was a young girl living in the South, enamored by a young preacher named Lank. Lank, fresh out of Duke Divinity School, was looking for volunteers for a ministry and our hero enthusiastically volunteered. The mission? To knock on doors of prominent Atlantans and try to convert them. (So this is how this happens—someone just decides and sends people to our doors!) One of the prizes on Lank’s list is none other than Butterfly McQueen, the self-professed atheist who has such strong ties to Atlanta’s cultural history. Butterfly would be quite a score and it’s up to the the protagonist/narrator to save her (before it’s too late, I guess).

I like this duel storyline, an image or object causing the narrator to think back to a similar point in their life, something invoking an old memory. It reminds me of one of my favorite Stuart Dybek stories, “Paper Lantern,” which you should check out. But in any case, the connection here, between cadaver and atheist actor, is that Butterfly McQueen says something about not caring what happens to her body when she dies, wanting to give it over to science so someone can learn or someone can use her organs. And this is what our protagonist, future first-year medical student, remembers as she’s dragging a scalpel along poor Vegas’ spine.

That’s a pretty thorough rundown of what this story’s about, but it’s not as simple as all that. Aside from the interesting structure—the frame, an image invoking a backstory—the character is more complex than I’ve described, the language in the story is lively and descriptive, and there are other characters, other scenes, that I sped by. “Saving Butterfly McQueen” has a lot going for it and I enjoyed it very much.

I like themed books—my last two collections had themes—so I super-enjoyed getting into Megan Mayhew Bergman’s nearly famous women concept in Almost Famous Women. I liked all three stories I read—the “Lottery” rewrite, Norma Millay story (which is written in Acts, like an old movie), and this more contemporary story, “Saving Butterfly McQueen.” I hope to get into more of the book, see what else Bergman can do, but so far so good. She has a lot of talent, writes good short stories.

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One thought on “September 4: “Saving Butterfly McQueen” by Megan Mayhew Bergman

  1. Pingback: September 6: “The Tao of Humiliation” by Lee Upton – Story366

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