by Katherine Anne Porter
First published 1939
Library of America edition, 2014; 150 pages
Katherine Anne Porter apparently disliked the term "novella," and preferred to refer to her brief fiction as short novels (or long stories). And probably none of the three pieces that make up this collection (Old Mortality, Noon Wine, and the title piece, Pale Horse, Pale Rider) would even qualify as novellas today. But for such short works, they pack a very solid punch.
The collection leads off with Old Mortality, set in the early 20th Century American South: Two young sisters (Miranda and Maria) learn the history of their family and especially the story of their Aunt Amy, a flamboyant figure who died young. As the story meanders through time, the girls grow up and find out more about their ancestors and relatives; and, right along with the girls, we learn the story of the family's decline. It's a deceptively simple, and very powerful work.
The second story Noon Wine is, as they say, much anthologized and I'm a little surprised I've never read it before now. It's set on a small dairy farm in South Texas, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and tells the story of the Thompson family and their enigmatic, mysterious hired man. Probably my favorite of the three, it's very different from the other two — darker, and with more of a conventional plot form and some intensely unattractive (though thoroughly human) characters.
In the final piece, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, we catch up with young Miranda from Old Mortality, now all grown up and working as a newspaper drama critic. The story is set at the end of the first World War, during that era's terrible flu epidemic. Through much of the tale, Miranda is dangerously ill with the flu and worrying about Adam, the young soldier she's lately been seeing. It's a story of love and death with an emotionally stirring impact.
This work has been on my TBR list for decades, and I've had the Library of America edition for a couple of years now. It took two reading challenges (Mount TBR and Monthly Key Word) to nudge me into finally reading it — and for that, I'm very grateful. But I'm sorry that I waited so long. Aside from "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall," this has been my only experience of Katherine Anne's Porter's work. It definitely won't be my last.
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