Knowledge abounds in this week’s arena contest as we take a look at teachers and mentors. These guides are the crux of any hero’s beginning. They mold their pupils and allow them to soar to great heights. They also usually end up dying in such a way that creates a mortal enemy, but we’ll ignore that part of it right now.
Albert Berg took us to the woods with “Tree Stand.”
D.M. Stale took us to the swamps with “Throw an Orange.”
Now, let’s see what our judges have to say.
Donald Jacob Uitvlugt is our first judge this week. On top of being the current TWA Champion, Donald strives to write what he calls “haiku fiction,” stories that are small in scope but big on impact. Find out more about haiku fiction here. He welcomes comments at his blog http://haikufiction.blogspot.com or via Twitter @haikufictiondju).
Ah, the Mentor. If one is to believe Joseph Campbell, this archetype has existed as long as humanity has told stories. The wise elder who guides the Hero in his quest, imparting special knowledge or skill. Mentors were once the Heroes of their own stories, and the wisdom they teach is usually hard won.
Let’s see how our combatants approached this classic archetype. As is my custom, I’m going to comment briefly on the two stories before moving on to my vote.
“Throw an Orange” – I really appreciate the set-up of this story. I like the apparent reversal of the younger man being teacher to the older. I do wish we had more of the backstory. Why does Mr. Ortiz want to play the guitar so much? How did the two of them meet? I think that a few hints along those lines would have enriched the story. But it also is a credit to the author that I want to know more about these characters.
I’ll fully admit that I’m a sucker for nested stories, when they’re done well as they are here. I’m not entirely sure about the role coincidence/fate playing in the lesson, and I’m not entirely sure that things will go well for Elliott in the future. But I do like the wisdom Mr. Ortiz is working hard to impart: one has to take control of one’s own life. One can decide not to be a victim any more.
This feels like a snapshot of what could easily be expanded into a longer work. I think that is also a compliment to the strength of the story.
“Tree Stand” – This story works for me on so many levels. I love the idea of the family ritual, the rite of passage whereby in destroying the monster, the son becomes the monster. I think the use of the present tense fits the mood of the story. As I read it, I got this really strong Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery” vibe off the tale. I don’t think the curse has to be explained for the story to work; it is part of the logic of the story. And I don’t feel that this story could end in any other way.
What doesn’t work for me so much in the story is that the emotions seem more distant than I think they should be. Dad has to know that what he is setting up Johnny for. Plus there is the added pressure that Johnny’s brother failed (because he was unable to kill his father?). Yet that added emotional pressure is only barely touched upon. I feel like there should be an almost unbearable tension by the end of the story, and I didn’t see it there.
It’s a good story, but I feel that with a little more tweaking it could have been truly great. And so I came away from reading it a little disappointed.
Two very good entries in the Arena this week. But as Sean Connery told Christopher Lambert, in the end there can be only one. Long-time readers know that I cast my vote for the story that had the greatest emotional impact on me. And this week, that story was
“Throw an Orange” by D. M. Slate.
There is one vote for Mrs. Slate. What does Rich Alix have to say?
Teachers, mentors and trainers. This is one relationship that I think we’ve all experienced from both sides. It can be as simple as training the new guy at work or as complicated as teaching the next generation a valued family tradition. Let’s see what our authors have to show us this week:
“Throw an Orange” by D.M. Slate – I liked the easy tone that this story starts off with. The descriptions of the street and the houses around do a good job of showing us the status of the characters involved in a casual way.
I loved the contrast between Mr. Ortiz and Elliot. A “shy red-headed teen and the old Cuban widower” could not be more different but, as we see later, they are alike in many ways also. It was a nice touch to flip the teacher/student idea on its head by having the teenager teaching the old man how to play guitar. It’s nice to see it shown that teachers come in many forms. When it flips back while taking about the bullies it only serves to reinforce that idea.
Mr. Ortiz’ tale about Carlos was my least favorite part of this story. The advice that comes at the end of “just throw an orange, and then trust that fate will work the rest out for you” sounds downright dangerous to me. Extrapolating a life lesson from a single instance of coincidence is a little crazy. “Throwing an orange” could just as easily end up causing you more harm than good. I know he is trying to get him to stand up to the bullies but the lesson seems to be more “fight fire with fire” than just being brave.
All in all, though, this is a very well written story. The conversation seems natural and normal and there was nothing here that felt forced at all. Well done.
“Tree Stand” by Albert Berg – This is not the first time that present tense has made an appearance in the Arena and as long as Mr. Berg is participating I am sure it won’t be the last. The thing is that it works here. It puts you in that tree stand with Johnny and makes you feel everything right along with him. It may have worked as well with past tense, but I’m not sure about that. I feel like the present tense adds a level of urgency to the story,
The story itself starts off as a tale of a boy sent to hunt the creature that killed his brother. Coached and warned by his father, he knows two things; that he is the family’s last hope and that the beast is a worthy adversary. The confrontation that is about to go down has been coming for some time.
Like many real hunts, much of the story told here is of the preparation that went into it and the tedious waiting that takes place before the beast is spotted. The tension that builds after the first sign of movement is wonderful. Johnny and the beast are locked in a duel and each waits patiently for the other to flinch.
When Johnny’s fear gets the best of him he reacts to snow falling from a branch and the beast finally shows itself. My suspicions were confirmed: werewolf, and one Johnny knows well. He still manages to do his job, however, even at great cost to himself.
The end of the story is my favorite part. The description of the shot fired as “a ballistic poem of love and mercy”, the face he knows, the voice he knows and the last remembered quote from his father just before he makes it to the dying beast. Heart-wrenching.
When the second part of his father’s quote starts to come true, when “something dark” starts to grow inside of Johnny, we really start to understand all that Johnny is facing.
“Death and love echoing through eternity”. I can’t put it any better than that.
This week we had two strong stories of mentors. The stories were very different but each did well demonstrating the relationship that exists between those who teach and those who learn, even when that line isn’t always easy to discern. Both stories had flaws as well, though neither had any big enough to make my job this week easy. When it came down to it, I had to give my vote this week to the story that just wouldn’t let me go. That story was “Tree Stand” by Albert Berg.
It’s a tie! That means it is time to move on to our reader’s vote. Let’s take a look.
Our wonderful readers have chosen Albert Berg and Tree Stand! Congratulations Albert!
You wrote a very fine story, D.M. Slate. Keep working and I’m sure you’ll be victorious next time.
Be sure to stop by next week as Tony Southcotte takes on Jemma Beggs. It’s surely going to be one to reflect on.