Anchor Books The O. Henry Prize Stories
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Prize Jury 2005
  • Cristina García
  • Ann Patchett
  • Richard Russo

  • Read about other jurors and their selected favorites.

    Cristina García

    Cristina García is the author of the novels Dreaming in Cuban, The Aguero Sisters, and Monkey Hunting. She edited Cubanísimo: The Vintage Book of Contemporary Cuban Literature. García lives in California.

    Juror Favorite:
    Cristina García on "Refuge in London" by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

    It is a paradox that sometimes nothing seems as distant from us as the recent past, what has only just disappeared. What "Refuge in London" by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala so beautifully evokes is the last days of a lost world, a world of a mere half century ago but one originating in a sensibility centuries older. In a shabby, postwar London boardinghouse crowded with a motley assortment of refugees (a lawyer, a businessman, and upstairs, an artist famous in prewar Germany and his wife), a sixteen-year-old girl recalls the parade of these characters and their influence on her formation. Through her finely drawn awareness, we see not only the disappearance of the old cultural order smashed by the forces of global war, but also the timeliness of the artistic struggle whatever the period, whatever the circumstances.

    "Refuge in London" has several themes: the ruinous effect of time on youthful promise, the way genius attracts its own public attention, and perhaps, most of all, the demands and responsibility of an artist's life; all emerge in clean, well-crafted prose whose nuance and shading match the characters' complex and, at least for now, unfathomable lives. The nature of refuge is often awkwardly managed (or outright bungled) in fiction, where the tendency can be to indulge in the drama of personal upheaval. Instead of hearing the noise of displacement, the reader experiences the routine of living that plays out afterward--and then after that--as the refugees struggle to reclaim their material and psychic footing. It is a smaller, more difficult story to tell, but it is also what makes "Refuge in London" all the more poignant and rewarding.

    Ann Patchett

    Ann Patchett is the author of the novels Taft, The Magician's Assistant, Patron Saint of Liars, and Bel Canto, as well as the memoir Truth and Beauty: A Friendship. She lives in Tennessee.

    Juror Favorite:
    Ann Patchett on "What You Pawn I Will Redeem" by Sherman Alexie

    I read too much and I read too critically. Both things are occupational hazards for writers. We have a lot of books to get through. Writers reading are like magicians going to catch a show at a magic club. You sit in the audience thinking, Oh, I can see how he's sawing her apart. We long to be amazed again, since it was that sense of amazement brought on by words that led us to this job in the first place, but once you know how to pull the strings and work the levers yourself it's never quite the same.

    When I read, one of three things happens: 1) I think something is bad, and I immediately break it down technically so that I can say why it is bad; 2) I think something is good, and I immediately break it down technically so that I can say why it is good; 3) I simply step into the story. I do not see how it is working. I do not care. I am in that world, walking around with those people. For the number of pages I am given to read, they are my life.

    The third option is rare, breathtaking, and akin to falling in love. Sherman Alexie's story, "What You Pawn I Will Redeem," is exactly such an experience. I want to stuff it in every mailbox I know. As a writer he is nowhere to be found on the page. He does not preen or try to impress. He has nothing to prove to his reader, only something to tell them. Like me, Sherman Alexie is in love with his homeless Spokane Indian narrator and so he simply steps aside to let his character have every inch of the stage. From the very first sentence the voice takes over and you know you will no longer be thinking about the art and craft of fiction because you will be too busy listening. Alexie follows this man through his world not as a character but as a human being. Every turn in his day is unexpected and true. As I read I was moved by sorrow, compassion, and joy. I felt all three things deeply and separately in the course of twenty pages. We are lucky when we get that much from life--we should be nothing short of rapturous when we get it from short fiction.

    Richard Russo

    Richard Russo is the author of Mohawk, The Risk Pool, Nobody's Fool, Straight Man, and Empire Falls, as well as The Whore's Child and Other Stories. Russo lives in Maine with his family.

    Juror Favorite:
    Richard Russo on "Mudlavia" by Elizabeth Stuckey-French

    As usual, this year's O. Henry anthology is full of fine stories, but the one that burrowed deepest under my skin was by Elizabeth Stuckey-French. I loved everything about "Mudlavia"--the deceptive simplicity of its storytelling; the way its private and public stories play off each other; its fond, gentle humor; the heartbreaking, hard-won wisdom of its narrator, who comes to understand that "life eventually takes away everything it gives."

    Which stories burrow under our skin, of course, has a lot to do with who we are and how as readers we allow ourselves to be approached. I admit that I've always been a sucker for a good coming-of-age story, especially if it involves, as such tales so often do, the loss of innocence. What makes "Mudlavia" work so wonderfully within its appealing genre is that its private story of a boy coming to terms with difficult truths--that the pain in his knee is no rheumatism to be cured by mud baths, that his doting mother is tragically unhappy in her marriage to his controlling father, that magical Mudlavia may be a con game--dovetails so perfectly with its public story of America's own impending loss of innocence. In "the last summer of peace" before the beginning of the first world war, the narrator and his mother fully believe that "as a nation . . . we were getting bigger, better, and more stylish." The story slyly asks whether America, with its unbridled, energetic optimism, is itself a kind of con game (in the literal sense of the term, where "confidence" is itself the dubious guarantor of the future). Are we a nation that first underestimates, then misdiagnoses its own ills, bullishly promising, like Mudlavia, more than it can hope to deliver by way of a cure? It's this public story that signals "Mudlavia"'s considerable ambition, that tips us off to the fact that Stuckey-French is hunting bigger game than at first we might suppose.

    No doubt the other reason that the story particularly appealed to me was that its true subject is the power of the literary imagination, or, if you prefer, of narrative itself. It's not just the boy protagonist who comes of age in "Mudlavia," but also his mother, and it's the act of storytelling that allows for their transformation from innocence to experience. The lies the narrator tells "Harry Jones" as the two are sheathed each morning in soothing mud are not just untruths, but narrative inventions that draw equally upon his youthful imagination and his growing knowledge of the real world, his first adolescent attempts to acknowledge the frightening complexities of his family, his world, even his own body. But the story's finest and most unexpected turn occurs when his mother takes up his narrative, embracing it as her own and thereby allowing her son to understand that she shares his need for another reality, as well as his joy in invention.

    For me, though, it's the story's flash-forward ending that seals the deal. By the end the boy has become a man who, with every reason to be bitter and disillusioned, has made a separate peace, preferring the "good" life he's lived to the "happy" one promised by Mudlavia. The pursuit of happiness may be our constitutional right as Americans, but, he seems to imply, it's always been the most childish aspect of our collective American dream. Elizabeth Stuckey-French has given us a story with the emotional and intellectual weight of a longer fictional work. Only the very best short fiction manages that.