For each issue of The Great Smokies Review, one of our editors, or a guest editor from the Great Smokies writing community, selects a favorite submission and explains why.
Asking a writer to choose a favorite piece is like asking a grandmother which grandbaby she loves the most. Unless the work is a real stinker, we like them all, and usually for different reasons.
Perhaps the setting carries you away to an exotic place, or a gritty world you might want to inhabit in your fantasies, or a familiar place that feels just like home. Or the plot pulls you into a mystery you want to solve, or a dangerous caper you wish you could live out in real life, or circumstances that touch your heart. Maybe a character is someone you wish you could be – or not – or who is just like your sister, or a kid you grew up with, or the teacher you loved. Or maybe it's something in the way the story is written, a subtle element of the writer's craft that enlarges the story for you, distinguishes it, gives it more texture, makes you feel like it was written for you and you alone.
All of the pieces in every issue of the Review touch me in a different way, so to choose one of many excellent candidates for a deeper look is asking me to be that grandmother. But since I didn't birth the authors, and since it isn't a matter of love but of reflection, I'll give it a go.
"Dummies," by Metta Pry, appeals to me for so many reasons. The story itself is fresh and original, yet rooted in familiarity. The characters are eccentric yet believable. The dark humor hits in the right places. There are enough surprises along with the familiar to keep me engaged. But those aren't the main reasons that kept me reading, and rereading.
Virginie and her skewed view of her world kept me in it.
Skewed views don't always appeal to me. They can sometimes make a character seem too outlandish, or self-absorbed, or annoying. I generally don't care about a character who is whiny, or too weird, or too paranoid, or too too. So why is Virginie the exception? Narrative voice.
Virginie is fourteen. That, in my book, automatically gives her the license to see things as they aren't. And does she ever!
After her mother's death, Virginie goes to live with a man she says isn't her father but he says he is. His house, in the artists' district, has a yard filled with painted and dressed mannequins, an art project of a former roommate. Virginie is sure that the mannequins move around in the yard and watch her and call her an orphan behind her back. She thinks they're creepy and even a touch malevolent.
Virginie also imagines the kids on the school bus all live together in a big house and talk about her day and night. She becomes more certain of this after she humiliates herself in class. She thinks every day about jumping in the river. She dreams about the kids on the bus turning into mannequins and her dead mother driving the bus off a cliff.
Her teacher has a prosthetic leg that Virginie sees as a replacement for the woman's human leg, which Virginie imagines the teacher's ex-husband chewed off. This supposition leads Virginie to blurt out an embarrassing comment in class, to give her classmates one more reason to laugh at her, to shun her.
And here's where narrative voice comes into the picture. This story of unlikely events is clearly told through the eyes of a teenaged Virginie who thinks her life is unique. The world revolves around her, and not always to her benefit. Her interpretation of events presents everything as a fact, as if no one could ever consider that these things didn't really happen or that maybe she might have read something or someone wrong, or imagined something that reflects her own fears and insecurities. Because she is a teen, every embarrassing or hurtful event is the end of the world. She wants to jump in the river.
To me, this perspective feels real, and makes Virginie sympathetic and likable. An adult character with the same worldview would, in all honesty, annoy me no end.
The dark humor, part of that narrative voice, emerges from Virginie's vivid imagination and adds depth to the story. In a very entertaining way, it shows how her mind works -- she takes a person or thing, envisions something absurd or terrifying, and takes it to an extreme that seems perfectly logical to her but totally exaggerated, yet funny, to an adult reader. I could easily suspended disbelief and feel great sympathy for Virginie because, although she's struggling to find her place in a world she sees as unsympathetic and maybe even out to get her, I know she's safe from the mannequins and the kids. She's so human and vulnerable, yet shows a survival instinct and enough moxie to make it to adulthood. As difficult as things get for her, she never jumps in that river.
Virginie is endearing, with a strong and true voice that made me want to hug her and tell her everything would be all right. Because that's what we grandmothers do.