Caitlin Horrocks’ short story “The Sleep”

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The Sleep by Caitlin Horrocks

To arm myself for my annual short story reading project (Deal Me In) in 2013, I couldn’t resist adding a couple new anthologies to my collection, which now numbers about two dozen. (And I just this moment realized that this could be thought of as a collection of collections – a neat idea? 🙂 ) Anyway, one of the new additions was the annually published “The Best American Short Stories of 20__” which has proved to be a good source indeed. It should be, based on the title, right?

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A couple things that I like about the collection are that (1) it introduces me to some new (to me) contemporary authors, particularly women authors, and (2) there is a great section in the back of the book that shares “Contributors’ Notes” by all of the authors about their particular stories in the book. Though many readers would just as soon NOT know the genesis of literary works, I am the opposite and am always curious as to the “how did he/she come up with THAT idea” questions. This collection satisfies that curiosity. Indeed, as I recall, it was a quick review of this section that helped me select which stories from the book to add to my 52 stories to read for 2013.

Author Caitlin Horrocks begins her notes with, “I am a good and dedicated sleeper. It’s a state I look forward to and find very difficult to let go of in the mornings, especially dark winter ones,” thus immediately establishing a common ground with this reader and probably the vast majority of others as well. She goes on to relate how reading an article about “historical sleep patterns, including alleged winter hibernation” intrigued her enough to lead her to write the short story, “The Sleep.”

The story is written in the first person plural by a representative of the Town of “Bounty.” The precise geographic location of the town is not given, though it is clearly in the upper Midwest (Minnesota? North Dakota?) where the winters are harsh and dark. One resident, Al Rasmussen, has survived a personal tragedy and announces to his fellow townsfolk that he intends to hibernate during January and February. He is provisioned with “crackers, tinned soup…, vitamin C, and canned juice” and has designed and built a DIY heater that “runs on grease.” The neighbors are skeptical and voice objections, all of which Al has already considered. He even says, “Don’t try to convince me anything worthwhile happens in this town during January and February,” and from the way Horrocks describes the town, he is probably right about this.

That’s the other side of the story. This is a dying town. The High School has been closed, and the kids rolled into another one nearby. Many of the main street’s stores are closed, forced out of business by the big box stores – not in town but in easy driving distance. The children of the town learn in school, via modern technology, of the outside world and have taught the adults that “none of us was special.” Given this environment, hibernation doesn’t seem like such a bad idea at all, does it?

Al’s experiment actually goes really well: “What was it like? How did it feel?” his neighbors ask. “I had these long dreams,” he said. “Unfolding over days. I dreamed I was in Eden, but it was mine. My farm. I picked apples every day.” Others in the town began to “feel like suckers” for not hibernating themselves. The second winter, others try it, also with beneficial results.

Some are opposed to the idea of The Sleep. Primary among these is the town librarian, Mrs. Drausmann. She tries to lobby for her fellow citizens remaining in “the real world” saying how she has books and people can use the library’s computers and get their music and movies.” A sleeper brutally squelches this argument: “If you’re dreaming, you have your own movies.” Later in the story, we see Mrs. Drausmann again, who stays awaKe with her books because “she had her own kind of dreams.”

As additional years pass, more and more citizens begin participating in “The Sleep,” so many that the town’s economy is affected. Where will this lead? Surely the town must have a threshold of participating citizens in the winter months below which it cannot function? And they are not totally isolated from the outside world, (e.g., a local food chain’s corporate lackeys visit the town to see “why winter quarter sales are down 90%”)

The final paragraph sums up the “new” version of the town of Bounty pretty well, I think:

“Now we are the people of Bounty, the farmers of dust and cold, the harvesters of dreams. After the lumber, after the mines, after the railroad, after the interstate, after the crops, after the cows, after the jobs. We’re better neighbors in warm beds than we ever were awake. The Suckers of the last century, but not of this one.”

Food for thought, eh?

This story was originally published in The Atlantic for Kindle and may also be found in the anthology mentioned above.

The author’s website is here http://www.caitlinhorrocks.com/

Finally, I found an interesting interview of the author online at:
Interview: http://southeastreview.org/2012/10/caitlin-horrocks-1.html

(below: Yes, I admit I’ve often felt envious of bears…)

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