“They said nothing happens in the country but there are more changes in a family in the country in five years than in a family in the city and this is natural. If nothing changed in the country there could not be butter and eggs. There have to be changes in the country, there had to be breaking up of families and killing of dogs and spoiling of sons and losing of daughters and killing of mothers and banishing of fathers. Of course there must in the country. And so this makes in the country everything happening in the country. Nothing happens in the city. Everything happens in the country. The city just tells what has happened in the country, it has already happened in the country.

Lizzie do you understand.” (Pages 42-43)

 

Written in 1933 this seventy-four page tale tells of various crimes, some mischievous, some sinister that happened one fateful summer. The tale, told in a stream of consciousness fashion, relates how phone lines were cut, automobiles were sabotaged, and at least one, if not more, nearby residents died. Events as well as numerous interconnected relationships are told from an unnamed narrator that allows every thought to spill out unguided. Situations, including possible murder, are not investigated and there is little clear meaning.

 

Like in most of her other works, Gertrude Stein doesn’t use dialogue tags or dialogue and rarely actually specifically names a character. Generic terms such as sister or gardener” or “servant” are used along with little reference to time or date. Any reference is done my trying to figure out who has left and who has arrived in the constantly shifting cast of vague characters.

 

Instead, any understanding of the work is to be gained by reading the accompanying work of the editor John Herbert Hill. In this 2008 Dover edition of literary criticism, he has composed a new introduction as well as published a previous afterword written for another edition and included two related short stories, “Is Dead” and “A Waterfall and A Piano.”

 

Beyond the numerous self congratulatory references he chose to include about himself from various critics and experts on the field in the introduction, the eleven pages do provide some context to the work. Beyond explaining what the story is actually about, Mr. Hill provides context for the time period the author wrote the piece and some of the themes to look for in the work including her fascination with fratricide and her love/hate relationship with her home country. While he makes frequent mention of the obvious deaths in the work he makes no mention of the obvious death of spirit that numerous characters exhibit.

 

The afterword comes from the editor’s 1982 edition published by Creative Arts Book Company and sheds further contextual light on the piece. Among other points, he notes stylistic choices the author made in the work such as the universal “we” by her use of “everybody,” the jumbling of past and present, the lack of a detective, etc. He also, as he did in the introduction, makes references to the two short stories included in this book and argues that they were her attempts to continue to deal with these themes.

 

Those with a deep knowledge on the author and her work will be the readers who most appreciate this effort. Those that expect a story that is clear and coherent with an understandable time line, recognizable and identifiable characters and character relationships, or expect basic punctuation should most likely read elsewhere. While the book is well done for its target audience, is fairly incomprehensible to readers that don’t have a deep background or interest in the subject matter.

   This review previously appeared online last fall at the book review site, Afterthoughts, owned and operated by Jade Walker who provided this book for my objective review. With the closing of the site last month by Jade Walker, all rights to the review returned to me.  

Kevin R. Tipple © 2009

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