Minnesota Author: Ethan Rutherford

HL Hunley Confederate Submarine
HL Hunley Confederate Submarine

Reading the author bios at the end of The Best American Short Stories 2009 gave me a Minnesota angle to discuss the collection: Ethan Rutherford.

Ethan Rutherford is a fiction writer who lives in Minneapolis and teaches writing and literature at Macalester College. His short story, “Peripatetic Coffin,” was included in the 2009 Best American Short Stories collection.

The subject of the story, Ward Lumpkin, is a confederate soldier serving on the H.L. Hunley, the infamous Civil War-era submarine deployed by the rebels to break the Union blockade of Charleston.

“The question I struggled with, the question that kept me interested, was what gets someone–voluntarily–aboard an invention like this? Another friend told me about the bombardment of the city, and it was the relentlessness of this bombardment that allowed me into the story,” Rutherford writes about his story.

What makes “Peripatetic Coffin” equally compelling and jarring is the modern tone with which Rutherford writes the story. The dialogue feels right at home in a collection of stories from 2009 yet provides a strange counterpoint to the era during which the story takes place. Somehow, Rutherford makes it work.

The collection is edited by author Alice Sebold and includes stories from authors such as Alice Fulton, Richard Powers, and Annie Proulx.

All in all, they were a great read.

All The Good Stories Suck

Ernest Hemingway Fishing Michigan Trout Image

I was catching up on MPR Midmorning podcasts recently and they were talking literature…can’t remember precisely what literature but that’s beside the point.

Some guy called in to complain that his high school lit teachers were always pushing books that were so depressing. If they’d assigned more uplifting stories, he argued, English classes might’ve been more interesting.

It sorta gave him the feeling that his teachers were trying to push some kind of agenda.

Yeah, that’s right, high school English teachers are secretly plotting to force depression on our children.

What the guy clearly never grasped was the fact that the vast majority of the really, really good stories are downers.

Think of all the literature you’ve read and list on one hand the uplifting stories and on the other the depressing stories. I’ve done this exercise many times (because I”ve made this argument many times) and the only uplifting example I can ever think of is E.M. Forster‘s A Room with a View, and that’s not even nearly his best work.

Ernest Hemingway–one of my favorite authors–was plagued by depression (and committed suicide himself), so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that his work reflects that tone. Yet though such masterpieces as The Sun Also Rises and Old Man And The Sea are decidedly not uplifting, I’ll take the insight they provide into the proverbial human condition any day of the week.

If you pay close attention to most Hollywood movies, you’ll notice that most of them have a happy ending tacked onto the end.

The hero comes back from seeming death.

The guy gets the girl.

Love is requited.

But those endings don’t feel right because they are not the natural ending of the story. All the good stories suck because they’re real, because they reflect life; and in real life, the hero often dies, the guy often doesn’t get the girl, and love remains unrequited.