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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

April 27, 2016: Short Story Cycles: The House on Mango Street



[This semester, as part of my Ethnic American Lit course, I’ve taught all or part of three short story cycles: Love Medicine, The Joy Luck Club, and The House on Mango Street. So this week I wanted to AmericanStudy those three works, as well as a few other examples of this complex literary genre.]
On two childhood experiences that the young adult cycle gets perfectly right.
I taught exceprts from Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street (1984) in my Ethnic American Lit course for a reason: the identity and perspective of young Esperanza Cordero, first-person narrator of the book’s many short short stories, are deeply informed by her cultural heritage as the daughter of Mexican American immigrants. For evidence, I point you to the book’s fourth story (and the first in which we meet Esperanza by name), “My Name,” which foregrounds the cultural, linguistic, and immigrant issues and experiences that will continue to impact and influence Esperanza’s childhood across the cycle. Yet precisely because Esperanza is a child and then young adult throughout the book (which begins when she’s about 9 and ends as she prepares to leave for college), Cisneros’ stories also engage consistently—and about as well as any American literary works ever have—with some of the most shared and foundational aspects of childhood.
One of those is childhood friends. From Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in their respective Mark Twain novels to Scout and Dill in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, there have been plenty of childhood friendships in classic American literature, but to my mind none have captured the rhythms and rituals of childhood play among peers nearly as well as does Cisneros in stories like “Our Good Day” (set at a moment when Esperanza and her friends Rachel and Lucy are inseparable) and “And Some More” (when they and Esperanza’s sister Nenny are in the middle of an argument and hate each other). Partly what distinguishes Cisneros’ stories and depictions of friendship from those others is her use of pitch-perfect dialogue, creating the voices and conversations of these young girls in a way that’s both thoroughly natural yet helps advance her book’s themes at the same time. But those dialogues, like everything in House on Mango Street, are framed by Esperanza’s narration and voice, and the closing paragraph of “Our Good Day” reflects how wonderfully that narration shapes these moments of friendship: “Down, down Mango Street we go. Rachel, Lucy, me. Our new bicycle. Laughing the crooked ride back.”
If such moments of friendship (at its best and at its worst) represent one way to define childhood, another way would be to see it as a series of small realizations, seemingly minor epiphanies about the world through which our perspectives gradually expand and mature. One of the best examples in House on Mango Street is in “Darius & the Clouds,” in which Darius, “who doesn’t like school, who is something stupid and mostly a fool, said something wise today.” The kids are looking up at the clouds and naming their shapes, and Darius, pointing to “that one there,” says, “That’s God. … God? somebody little asked. God, he said, and made it simple.” Like many of the characters in individual Cisneros stories, Darius will largely disappear for the rest of the book—but clearly the character and moment were meaningful for young Esperanza, and they become one of many such stories in which her perspective shifts and grows, often directly impacted by those same childhood peers and neighborhood friends. By the end of Cisneros’ unique and wonderful short story cycle, Esperanza has been profoundly changed by all those moments and stories—and so have we.
Next cycle tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Other short story cycles you’d highlight?

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