Monday, December 1, 2008
A Cricket in Her Hair
It's tempting to cut the things in a story that don't fit, a character's idiosyncrasy, an unusual setting detail, an unexpected plot twist. Of course, sometimes these things distract without any redeeming value—but sometimes, when handled well, they enhance and deepen the story. I noticed this recently while reading My Ántonia, by Willa Cather. Cather didn't shy away from describing the sunflowers that grew along a rural Nebraska roadway, even though they seem to belong more in someone's garden or California. But the unexpected sunflowers were like the Bohemian and other immigrant families that settled in the area in the nineteenth century, out of place and enigmatic. It was a good move, as was the description of Ántonia's rescuing a cricket from certain death by hiding it in her hair under a scarf. The visual is unusual, but for Ántonia the cricket was a reminder of home, specifically of an old woman in the town whom the children flocked to and called grandmother. By way of Cather's skilled description and expert weaving of Ántonia's choice to save the cricket by putting it in her hair, an oddity became a memory not only for Antonia but also for the reader, a warm moment in the otherwise bleak Nebraska landscape. Both the sunflower and the cricket showed the humanity of the German and Bohemian immigrants of the time and their strangeness among the original settlers, but also the immigrants' indispensable contribution, just by being there. So, I'm thinking that although not every weird detail in my writing should be kept just because I wrote it, I'm less likely to be afraid of the strangeness and instead try to figure out how it might advance the story.