The Landscape of Dreams

This post marks my first participation in the “Short Story on Wednesday” meme hosted by Breadcrumb Reads. I learned of this meme via Che’s wonderful blog From Kafka to Kindergarten. Please give them both a visit.

“Rummy things, dreams. Wonder what makes mine fit into each other so…” -George Cottar, in “The Brushwood Boy”

Note: This post contains minor spoilers; I don’t think it would “ruin” the story for you, but you are welcome to read the story first if you’d like. It can be found on line here.

One of my all-time favorite short stories has got to be Rudyard Kipling’s “The Brushwood Boy,” which I just read for, I think, the fourth time. I’ve even posted about the story once before on this blog. It was one of my 52 stories in this year’s “Project: Deal Me In!” For those new to my blog, this is a project wherein I read one short story a week, determined by a random draw from a deck of cards (52 cards, 52 weeks in a year; convenient, yes?). Each story is assigned to a specific card, and the suits roughly represent types of stories (e.g. Hearts were favorite stories that I’d read before). This Saturday morning I drew the three of hearts and was thus led back to this enchanting story.

In it, we follow the somewhat condensed life story of one Georgie (later George) Cottar, an English boy of great imagination and easy manner, and something of a dreamer. We are first introduced to him as a three year-old who has had a fright, seeing “a policeman” on the grounds of his family’s property. We see later why this might disturb the young boy.

Away to school, we see him start off slowly, but eventually rise to leadership, via his athletic prowess and unaffected manner. His dreams take a back seat as “ten years at an English public school do not encourage dreaming.” Later, he takes his place in the British Army and thereby, due to “the regular working of the English Empire” ends up at a post in India. His successful rise remains uninterrupted there as he “sought popularity as little …(there) as he did in school, so therefore it came to him.”

Through this time, he begins to dream again, and notices that although most of his dreams are the normal dreams that we all experience, there are also a class of dreams that return him continually to the same dream landscape. He even begins to create a map of this landscape, adding to it whenever he has another of his special dreams. He also has a companion on his travels in this dreamscape, the imagined Princess Annieanlouise, from his childhood fantasies and imaginings. Together, their travels in this landscape and “The City of Sleep” are only interrupted when “Policeman Day” enforces their sad return to the realm of wakefulness.

Part of his uniqueness is that George somehow remains “an innocent” throughout his tour of duty, much to the disbelief of his fellow officers and his parents. It is only upon returning home to England (“There’s no place like England – when one has done his work”) that he finds that he is not the only person who is familiar with “his” landscape. I don’t want to go I to greater detail which would truly spoil the story, but it never fails to evoke goosebumps from this reader.

Another reason why I find this story so special is that I, too, “discovered” a landscape to some of my dreams. During my college years, I began to notice that I had several dreams that, though not “recurring dreams” in the classical sense, did appear to have common geographic elements. I even went so far as drawing a rough sketch of my landscape. Sadly, over the years, my “warped and faulty reservoir” (nod to John Steinbeck) of memory has become less and less able to remember my dreams, although sometimes I do still wake with a lingering trace of memory of having been wandering on “The High Path” along the mountain ridge of my own “dream landscape”…

(Rudyard Kipling)

“Stories Time!”

Tonight is my book club’s annual “Short Story Month” (where instead of reading a single book, we read short stories; each member picks a story for the group to read); this year we had eight of our nine members suggest a short story. I finished reading the last of them last night and… I liked them all! A few brief thoughts follow:

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”

This story was totally NOT what I was expecting. I guess I should’ve known that Fitzgerald was capable of a story like this since we read his “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” a couple of years ago, but this one blew me away. The protagonist is a young man sent off to prep school where he disappointedly marvels at the “exceeding sameness” of his classmates. He does bond with one of them however, and is invited to spend a holiday with the family at their home out west. His new friend Percy brags that his father is the richest man in the whole world and owns a diamond “as big as the a Ritz Carlton” hotel. The visit leads him to a kind of domestic Shangri-La which Percy’s father stops at nothing to protect. A fantastical story which I enjoyed quite a bit. I also discovered on YouTube a copy of an old radio theater adaptation of the story which I listened to with amusement. I’ll try to add a link to that when I find it again.

Jack London’s “A Piece of Steak”

This one was my pick. I read it during one of my favorite high school English classes. It’s a classic story of the age old struggle between youth and experience. Dramatically taking the form of a wily old prizefighter’s bout against an “up and coming” contender who has strength but not experience. London’s descriptions of the characters are extremely well done. Sadly, I’m reaching the age where this theme is of more interest to me than I’d like to admit…

Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”

This was probably the third or fourth time I’ve read this story, which is found in many anthologies. Taking place during the American Civil War, it deals with the execution – by hanging – of a man who tried to sabotage the bridge in the title of the story. What the reader is treated to is a Twilight Zone-esque tale with a twist of an ending. Good stuff.

Rudyard Kipling’s “Rikki Tikki Tavi”

I haven’t read Kipling in awhile, but he did happen to write one of my all-time favorite stories, “The Brushwood Boy.” <insert goosebumps> This particular story deals with the time honored, proverbial fight between a Cobra and a Mongoose, and is set in colonial India. It reads a bit like a children’s tale but, I believe, still makes great reading for adults. It called to mind for me a book I read one summer during my college years that dealt with the history of The British East India Company and all the exotic lands it controlled. Sadly, looking back today, I can recall almost nothing of the details of that book. 😦

“Casey at the Bat” – a poem by Ernest Lawrence Thayer

Short and sweet. This famous poem is not dissimilar from the “Tortoise and the Hare” fable where overconfidence meets its comeuppance. Today’s readers can scarcely know how popular this poem was in its day, and how deeply woven into the public consciousness it was.  My dad would frequently quote from it (a favorite taunt of his during any kind of game where he held the advantage was “it’s looking dark in Mudville…”) and I suspect it was well known in his family when he was growing up. This poem, like several of our stories this month, touches on a classic theme too – in this case the “hubris” of “The Mighty Casey.”

“A Shameful Affair” by Kate Chopin

This one may have been the least memorable of this group, and I’m not sure I like the ending, where the readers kind of left to speculate about just what has happened. I think I know, but am also anxious to hear what my fellow club members think tonight. The story, in a nutshell, is about a bored “aristocratic” girl who has a dalliance with a rough around the edges farmhand (who is an eminently more likable character than she is) and the consequences that follow.

Alice Hoffman’s “The Conjurer’s Notebook”

This author may be the “discovery” of this year’s Short Story Month for me. It certainly wins the Oscar for “Best Character” in the form of the female character, Dorey, who lived (by her wits) through the holocaust, marries an American soldier and returns to America, where she meets his possessive grandmother, Violet. I loved this story and am eager to read more by this author. As Hoffman describes, Dorey is one of those people who “knew how to deal with what happened to them in this world” while “others do not.”

A.M. Burrage’s “Smee”

I’ve read this story many times. It’s one of my favorite ghost stories ever, and I’ve written about it here on this blog before, so I’ll just refer you my previous post.

Links to most of these stories are posted at my book club’s website (see blogroll to the left) if you’d like to read some of them for free.

What about you, do you have experience with any of these authors or stories? Are any of them among your favorites? Would you recommend other stories by them?

“Bumper Crop”


Without fail it’s my favorite book club meeting each year:  “Short Story Month!”  We’ve been doing this every July now, starting with 2008.  Each of our nine members picks a short story for the members to read.  Most of them pick a ‘famous’ story that’s available in the public domain and thus on the internet, while a couple share an actual copy or copied pages from a book.  I love the variety and the change of pace from our normal meetings.  And there are always a few previously unknown gems discovered (at least by me, anyway.)

This time around, we even have a couple repeat stories.  With some member turnover since inception, a couple stories that have been picked before were picked again (well, one was a short story picked during our “Ghost Story Month” – another favorite meeting of mine), but we decided to just read them again anyway.  Some members hadn’t read them the first time, or weren’t part of the club the first time, and heck, they’re just darn good stories too.

So far, we’ve heard from all but one member (come on, Carla! 🙂 ), and here’s what we’ve got so far:

F. Scott Fitzgerald – “A Diamond as Big as the Ritz”

Kate Chopin – “A Shameful Affair”

Ernest Lawrence Thayer – “Casey at the Bat”

Jack London – “A Piece of Steak”

Rudyard Kipling – “Rikki Tikki Tavi”

Ambrose Bierce – “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”

Alice Hoffman – “The Conjurer’s Handbook”

A.M. Burrage – “Smee”

I consider this a bumper crop of stories.  Yeah, yeah, I know Casey at the Bat is a poem (the member who picked that one is a chronic troublemaker…  🙂 ).  Also the member who selected An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge described it as “a dark story that keeps you hanging until the end.”  If you’ve read that story before, you may appreciate the humor in that description…  Chopin, Thayer, and Hoffman are all new authors for the club, whereas for some of the others we’ve read novels, and some are making their second appearance in Short Story Month.

What about you?  Have you read any of these stories?  Have you ever participated in a book club that read short stories (either every now and then, or exclusively)?  I’d love to hear about it…


Back from the City of Sleep – Kipling’s short story, “The Brushwood Boy”

Reading so many short stories lately has motivated me to share with you a recommendation… Rudyard Kipling’s story “The Brushwood Boy” is one of my all-time favorites. It’s simply magical. The hero of the story, over the years, has crafted a kind of dream landscape that he visits over and over in his slumbers. He assumes he alone knows of this dream world, but finds out otherwise. I won’t include any other spoilers here ’cause I’m hoping you’ll take the half hour or so to read it for yourself. (you can find it free online in many places).

It includes the following beautiful verse/song:

Over the edge of the purple down,
Where the single lamplight gleams,
Know ye the road to the Merciful Town
That is hard by the Sea of Dreams-
Where the poor may lay their wrongs away,
And the sick may forget to weep?
But we – pity us! Oh, pity us!
We wakeful; ah, pity us! –
We must go back with Policeman Day –
Back from the City of Sleep!

Weary they turn from the scroll and crown,
Fetter and prayer and plough
They that go up to the Merciful Town,
For her gates are closing now.
It is their right in the Baths of Night
Body and soul to steep
But we – pity us! ah, pity us!
We wakeful; oh, pity us! –
We must go back with Policeman Day –
Back from the City of Sleep!

Over the edge of the purple down,
Ere the tender dreams begin,
Look – we may look – at the Merciful Town,
But we may not enter in !
Outcasts all, from her guarded wall
Back to our watch we creep:
We – pity us! ah, pity us!
We wakeful; oh, pity us! –
We that go back with Policeman Day –
Back from the City of Sleep

Maybe I’m reminded of this today because I’m verrrry sleepy after an insomniacal night and am thinking of the comfort that Georgie’s dream world provided…

Below: an illustration (by F.H. Townsend) from the 1899 publication of the story.