How wise of Emily Anderson to begin her lovely story “Calliope” with an epigraph from one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic books. She must take care of herself, Wilder tells us, When you must do that, then you do it and you are grown up. With these words we are readied both to return to the dream-worlds of childhood and to mourn their imminent end. Within the course of this story, that’s just what will happen. Anderson conjures the rich, enigmatic sensuality of a childhood; and then, just as skillfully, she dissolves everything. When she’s done with us, we may hear only, and faintly, the echo of Wilder’s warning: you are grown up.
It’s famously difficult for fiction to mimic a child’s logic, to hand the burden of story-telling off to a child. Anderson succeeds with a remarkable vividness. At one point the narrator tells us, “my eyes felt stretched and sheer, like inked paper lanterns”—this isn’t just a good line, but just the right metaphor for this pioneer-era girl, to whom such lanterns would be objects at once familiar and magical. “It is impossible to regulate the volume of a calliope,” her narrator later tells us with a child’s authority—as excuse, of course, for why she can’t quiet her little brother. Whenever her mother combs her hair, she looks out the window to the maple outside; she feels the teeth of the comb tugging through hair as the roots of the tree digging into earth. Scarlet fever strikes the town, their maid included, and she perceives it as: “Dust and dirt and twirling maple keys sticky with seeds settled on the window no one washed anymore.” I could go on—or you could just read the story.
Anderson knows that economy is essential to every good story: each element she introduces will serve more than one purpose, and she never over-explains. She knows, too, that a story’s sentences must have their own music, and her gentle assonance and consonance guide us from beginning to end.
The events in “Calliope” occur in the borderlands between dream and reality, so that even as they have real consequences, they possess the luminousness of dream. Anderson evokes the elusive quality of childhood memory and of the fictive worlds—such as Wilder’s, to whom this story serves in part as tribute—nested within that memory. It takes a quite perceptive, ambitious mind to make a story like this—I’d love to see what Anderson writes next.