The Crabapple Tree by Robert Coover – Selection 2 of #DealMeIn2019

The Card: ♣6♣  Six of Clubs. Playing card image found on Pinterest from a 19th century deck. The bones are quite appropriate for one section of this story, heh heh.

The Suit: For #DealMeIn2018, ♣♣♣Clubs♣♣♣ is my Suit for “Award Winning Stories” which I’m defining for Deal Me In purposes as stories that were featured in either the O. Henry Prize Winning story anthology of 2016, or the Best American Short Stories anthology from 2017.

The Author: Robert Coover, who I’ve never read before. Picture is from wikipedia. From what I hear, he has a penchant for horror stories told in a kind of fairy tale language.

The Selection: “The Crabapple Tree” which I own as part of my e-copy of The O. Henry Prize Stories 2016. I guess I also own it as a digital subscriber of The New Yorker, which published the story in its January 12, 2015 issue. The story is essentially a retelling of the classic Grimm’s tale “The Juniper Tree”- somehow being set in the contemporary world makes it even more chilling. Read it online at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/01/12/crabapple-tree (I believe The New Yorker still allows three free articles read per month online).

What is Deal Me In? I’m glad you asked!  Full details may be found here  but generally speaking it’s a reading challenge where participants try to read one short story a week for the year, the reading order being determined by the luck of the draw. See here for the list of stories I’ll be reading in 2019. At the bottom of that post will be the cards I’ve drawn and links to any posts I’ve written on the stories. Also, check the sidebar for links to other book bloggers who are participating in this year’s challenge.

The Crabapple Tree

“Marleen seemed to live in a storybook land of her own. When she spoke, she spoke to the world, the way singers do, and what she said seldom made any sense.”

This was a great – and creepy! – story told in a fairy tale-like voice, which made it very easy to read. Tolstoy famously said that all great literature is one of two stories: a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. This story would fit into the latter. The stranger is the second wife of a local farmer whose first wife had died giving birth to his son, Dickie-Boy. The narrator of the story and her friends refer to the woman as the Vamp, thinking she may be a former prostitute and, even if not, certainly 150112_r25994the possessor of a certain power over men.

With this stranger came her daughter, Marleen, who becomes a playmate of both Dickie-Boy’s and also (at least initially) the daughter of our narrator. The Vamp is a mean spirited person, and trouble lies ahead for this family as first Dickie-Boy, then the farmer himself die under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Local authorities are curious about these deaths, but not so much so as to truly “investigate.”

“…the little boy had never quite seemed part of this world in the first place, so it wasn’t as sad as when his mother died.”

He is buried under the crabapple tree (where his mother had also been buried) and Marleen has a strange bond with the tree. One time, while playing with a pile of bones, stringing them together into a kind of horrible puppet, she even tells the narrator’s daughter that “the bones were those of her stepbrother, whom her mother had cooked up in a black-beer stew, which her stepfather ate, gnawing all the little bones clean before burying them.” The narrator continues that her daughter stopped seeing Marleen about that time.  (No kidding!)

The Vamp later runs off (or also disappears?) and Marleen takes over the farm on her own, building an extension of the house to protect the tree and the story ends with the chilling “Its apples were said to be poisonous, but birds gathered in its laden branches like twittering harpies to eat them, and, if anything, they got louder and bigger, and there were more of them than ever.”

So, what was Marleen anyway? Near the end of the story the narrator admits that “Over the years, we got used to thinking of Marleen as something eerie but mostly harmless at the edge of our lives.” In a past era of history, she would certainly be considered a witch, and possibly subjected to the fate that often befell those so designated. In this story, she has a natural affinity and “familiar”ity with animals and even speaks a kind of bird language at times. A fascinating character to be sure.

u-g-pysik20♫♫ Personal notes: This story got me thinking about those acquaintances in our lives who we only know through the eyes of our – or their – children. When I was growing up, there were a few neighborhood friends whose houses I’d occasionally visit, but it seems that most of our “playing” was outside, and those times where I got an inside glimpse of how another family lived were rather rare. Of course, upon my return home, I would be debriefed by my parents about “did you have a good time at “X”s house?” and “what did you do all afternoon?” etc. and I wonder now if my own parents were forming opinions based on the keyhole-view their child provided of the neighbors…

What short stories did YOU read this week? What memories and stories do you have of playing at friends’ houses when YOU were growing up?

 

4 Comments

  1. Dale said,

    January 14, 2019 at 2:20 pm

    “something eerie but mostly harmless at the edge of our lives.” – interesting description!

    Yes, growing up, I played outside with lots of neighborhood kids whose houses I only rarely went in. I hadn’t thought of that in a while!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. marianallen said,

    January 14, 2019 at 4:12 pm

    Oedipus Rex is both. just sayin’.

    Like

  3. vidyatiru said,

    January 19, 2019 at 8:39 pm

    as a child growing up in a colony of about 250 families where nothing was secret it seemed, there were some people who did manage to evoke that feeling 🙂 and yes, i did spend time in the homes of many neighbors and friends
    the cover seems creepier than the stories themselves, is that so?
    my read for the week of 1/14 finally reviewed – creepy in its own right
    https://www.ladyinreadwrites.com/short-stories-are-meant-to-be-savored/

    Like

  4. DebraB said,

    January 19, 2019 at 11:19 pm

    Robert Coover is sometimes grouped with Donald Barthelme, the writer of my story this week. His story sounds pretty creepy!

    https://debrabooks.wordpress.com/2019/01/19/donald-barthelme-the-school/

    Like


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