The narrow bar of bright light from the gap in the curtains crept across the room. It moved across the face of the sleeping girl and she stirred, the red glow through her eyelids dragging her away from her dreams. It was Christmas morning and […]The Christmas bird – a short story — Robbie’s inspiration
“Johanna” — Plot Summary
By: Shane Lambert
Jane Yolen’s short story “Johanna” tells a short ‘tail’ of a young sixteen-year-old North American aboriginal woman. Set in the past, possibly in the 19th century, Johanna and her dying mother live in a village in a forest known as Hartwood. Although the aboriginal village can support many more residents than its current population, Johanna and her mother are the last of their family. The others, it is said in the story, have all disappeared into the night or died.
Near the start of the story, we learn that it may soon be Johanna’s mother’s turn to pass away. To prevent this, Johanna makes a decision that is a catalyst for the story’s plot. Believing that her mother’s death is imminent, Johanna decides to fetch a nearby doctor. While this may seem to be a straight-forward decision, the drama involved is that Johanna’s motive is so strong that she feels compelled to fetch the doctor immediately, in the quiet of night. As a result, she decides to face the terrors of running through Hartwood forest at night — despite the fact that her other family members have previously disappeared for doing just that.
There is a surreal aspect to this story. As Johanna runs through the forest, she turns into a deer. We learn this, with clarity, at the end of the story when she enters the doctor’s yard.
The doctor looks at her, claims that he wants deer meat for the winter, and then shoots her — not really knowing that he is killing Johanna. We may assume, that in killing her, the mother’s death will follow back at the aboriginal village. As they were the last two members of their family, themes of genocide and/or cultural destruction can be looked at in this short story.
There is a suggestion that the aboriginal ‘village’ is not officially considered to be one. Perhaps the best of view of them is “unincorporated.” However, the white-people’s village is considered a village, despite identical size. There is a theme of ostracism that can be expanded on from that. Understanding this story involves looking at what is being ostracized.
But first, on a simpler level, this story is one with a lot of so-called Easter Eggs for readers to pick up on. Before we learn that Johanna has changed form, there are many clues that she is about to do so.
If you read the story twice, then the second time around you can spot these clues easily. Firstly, there is a reference to Johanna gaining “new senses” and she can see clearly in the darkness of night. Also, she doesn’t feel cold despite the winter-time setting and nor does running burden her from a cardiovascular perspective. Gaining new senses, seeing clearly in the darkness of the forest night, not getting cold in frigid temperatures, and having the wherewithal to run great distances without facing fatigue could all be viewed as inhuman.
At one point, she and her family are described as “strong as beasts.” At another point, when Johanna gets close to her goal, it is said that she “ranged,” a verb to describe movement that’s more common to animal movements than human ones.
There are other clues as to Johanna’s impending change still. For instance, Johanna is apprehensive to enter a meadow — perhaps an instinct common to deer more than humans. This aspect of the story reminded me of a scene in the Disney movie Bambi where Bambi’s mother won’t enter the meadow quickly for fear of hunters.
Picking the story over for these Easter Eggs is perhaps a challenge for the high-school student. A more challenging look at the story requires looking at “Johanna” as an allegory for the historical relationships between aboriginal people and Europeans. From this point of view, the topics of stereotyping, cultural extinction, genocide, and environmental destruction can be explored.
Themes in “johanna”
Yolen, the author of the story, makes it clear that Johanna is to be understood as aboriginal. Yolen doesn’t wait to do this as the opening line strongly implies it when Johanna is described as having “moccasined feet.” Moccasins are the footwear that aboriginal people in North America were first known for. As a modern fashion, anyone of any culture can wear them. However, in the historical context of this story, it’s clear that Johanna is aboriginal. This is something that should be considered important for understanding this short story.
Johanna starts the story as an alive human and ends up as a dead deer. Her death is one matter to be looked at. But, firstly, let’s look at what her change of species means.
A literary character that starts as a human and ends up as an animal could be viewed as a literary character that is at one with nature. There could be other views to take. For instance, an aboriginal person that starts human and ends up an animal might be taken to be an argument that aboriginals are less than human. However, the former position is the one that I think is better for understanding this story. There is plenty of precedent when it comes to stereotyping aboriginal people as stewards of the environment.
For some, this will provoke retorts of the “noble savage” myth. However, such comments are not too relevant when it comes to short-story analysis. Fictional representations of aboriginal people have been used as a symbol of being at peace with the environment before.
Perhaps a strong example is Iron Eyes Cody. He was actually an Italian-American but he portrayed Native Americans in acting roles. In this fictional capacity, he was featured in a famous, or infamous, 1971 advertisement that advocated fighting pollution.
Seen crying in the advertisement, one can ask if his portrayed identity as a North American aboriginal juxtaposed with an environmental cause somehow lent credibility to the environmental stance. If you answer “no” to this then an additional question remains relevant. Did the environmental agency think it would? In my mind, the only answer to that question is “yes.”
What appears to be clear is that the organization that ran the advertisement, Keep America Beautiful Inc., thought that Iron Eyes Cody’s in-character endorsement would add credibility to their institution somehow. This must be because they had an instinct that a percentage of the public would see an aboriginal person as a metaphor for environmental protection or stability. We don’t have to have a serious discussion about which cultures were better for environmental stability but, instead, we can just talk about public perception.
The advertisement below, depicting Iron Eyes Cody, is an example of a fictional aboriginal character being used metaphorically as a symbol of the environment. His crying eyes and sad face are the embodiment of environmental destruction, specifically, the spread of pollution.
Another fictional character that is both at one with the environment and aboriginal to North America is Pocahontas as represented in the Disney animated film of that name. In that film, she sings “Colors of the Wind,” a song that implores the profit-oriented European invaders of her homeland not to be so greedy when it comes to exploiting natural resources.
Johanna has something in common with both Iron Eyes Cody and Disney’s Pocahontas. “Johanna,” the short story, could be viewed in the context of positive evaluations that have been made of aboriginal cultures in North America. They are, in fact, regarded as being more harmonious with nature in the world of fiction. Johanna, the literary character, is effectively a metaphor for a culture that can co-exist with nature. That’s what it could be held to mean when she turns into a deer.
Along those lines, that a prominent member of the nearby European community, a doctor, kills Johanna in her deer form shouldn’t be taken as a reference to genocide. That’s definitely a related topic but the story should be taken more as an opinion that European cultures aren’t grounded in an environmentally sound philosophy.
That Johanna and her kin are dying out makes genocide a related topic. However, in the short story the doctor’s killing of Johanna, as an aboriginal person, is actually completely inadvertent. Also, that her mother will die is inadvertent too. The doctor is not depicted as genocidal, rather he is merely killing a deer from his point of view.
There could be an implication here of two cultures colliding — and one largely losing. Perhaps this kind of inadvertent destruction could be viewed as having taken place in North America alongside other forms of deliberate destruction.
But, in conclusion, I think a fair interpretation of “Johanna” mainly has to do with a positive evaluation of aboriginal cultures in terms of environmental sustainability. As shown, the story is not unique in this regard when a broader look at fiction is undertaken. Iron Eyes Cody was actually a fictional character and Pocahontas was, at least as far as Disney’s representation of her goes.
On a related matter, one could debate which cultures are better or worse for the environment. My opinion would be that the current environmental crisis facing humanity has a lot more to do with both industrialization and deforestation than anything the pre-contact aboriginal cultures did.
My heart sinks. He has been drinking again. This I know from the flash of anger in his eyes, the purposeful way he strides towards me. My knees tremble as I stand my ground. Last time he threw my favourite ornament at me and it shattered as it hit my head. It left a scar. I […]Drinking – 100 Word Flash Fiction — fabricating fiction
By: Shane Lambert
Is there something wrong with dumping somebody on his or her birthday? What about breaking up on Valentine’s Day?
In answering these questions, I think that most people would feel that there are some times when you do not drop a bomb on a relationship. Whether that’s right or wrong is one matter. But in the name of being considerate, perhaps decency dictates picking an appropriate time for ending a relationship whenever such a consideration is possible.
On that matter, we’re talking about a short story of course — this is a short-story website. I had a back and forth with fellow Indy-writer Lia Fairchild this week, therein discussing her eBook “Home for Christmas.” Described as a “holiday romance short” the story tells of two people who have “intertwined” fates, perhaps reminding literary fans out there of the famous “star-crossed lovers” Romeo and Juliet. One situation in the novel is the question of Christmas-time relationship-status changes. Would you drop the bomb on Christmas Day?
Fairchild’s publication features Ali and Stephen, two people in need of “a real Christmas miracle,” a miracle that will have to be on the romantic side. My back-and-forth with the other is below.
Me, Shane Lambert: “Can we start with a technicality? The line between a short story and a novella is a blurry one. Amazon says your ‘Home for Christmas’ is 61 pages in length and it’s also in the 90-minute category for reading time. We are a short-website here at short-stories-online.com, would you call “Home for Christmas” a short story or novella? Did you start with a short story in mind but then found yourself wanting to carry on? Or did you just write it and stop when you felt it was complete?”
Lia Fairchild: “I just had an idea for a story and then started writing. But I knew it wouldn’t be a full-lengthed book. I actually still consider it a short story. Most authors I’ve talked to consider a novella to be at least 20,000 words.”
Me, Shane Lambert: “Okay. While avoiding plot spoilers, the Amazon reviews — which are generally positive — make it clear that “Home for Christmas” deals with relationships. When it comes to ending relationships, does your book explore this often difficult thing to do with a reference to the Christmas-time setting? It seems there would be a contrast between the joy of the season and the grief of loving in vain, of being rejected. Does this come up?”
Lia Fairchild: “Yes, there are various relationships starting and stopping for different reasons. Most of this I wouldn’t want to give specifics on as they are key surprises in the story. I can say that one of my characters grapples with ending a relationship during the holidays because it’s that much harder for both the person initiating and the person who doesn’t want to leave the relationship. However, it was less about rejection and more about facing the holidays alone, dealing with the questions from family.”
Me, Shane Lambert: “On the marketing side, as an author writing a holiday romance, do you face any challenges of keeping the momentum going when it comes to sustaining a constant readership? No one wants Hallowe’en stuff in November, they say, — I’m wondering if anyone wants a Christmas-time setting in their fiction reading after Christmas is over.”
Lia Fairchild: “It seems like the kind of eBook that would be popular at Christmas time but not so popular again after that and then not popular for most of the year. That’s true. I wasn’t worried about it as the story originated for a group anthology project and I now I typically just promote it during November and December.”
Me, Shane Lambert: “From reading the preview, it looks like you employ a third-person narrator? Is it omniscient as well? Which of your characters’ heads do you reveal the most about in the narration?”
Lia Fairchild: “Third person, yes. Omniscient, no. It’s a dual point-of-view swapping between a male and female character. I don’t like to head hop as a writer and I don’t like it as an editor either.”
Me, Shane Lambert: “Lastly, I know you are based in Southern California. Where is ‘Home for Christmas’ set?”
Lia Fairchild: “Oddly enough, I don’t remember. I wrote the story years ago and just wanted a wintery Christmas feel. I do have a few books set in Southern California, though.”
Me, Shane Lambert: “Well, I’ll assume it’s set where I live, here in the Canadian Rockies where we do get the wintery setting. Thank you for your time and I hope you continue to enjoy success with your writing career.”
By: Shane Lambert
I met John West in a Facebook group that we are both a part of called “Indie Authors Networking.” We share an interest in writing short stories and he was nice enough to chat online for a short time about a project of his that’s available on Amazon.
Entitled “Dancing in Valhalla,” Mr. West answered four questions for me and the readers of this site regarding his 13 short stories. They are posted below and may help readers decide if West’s eBook or Paperback is the right choice for them.
Me, Shane Lambert: “I saw that you called your short stories ‘twisted tales.’ Would you put them in horror or suspense categories as well? If someone liked the “Tales from the Crypt” comic books, do you think they would like your 13 stories?”
John West, author: “These stories bounce between horror and suspense, Shane. But they all have twists in the tale. Hence “twisted.” Although that could also apply that to some of the events and characters in the stories. And the lunatic who wrote them. I like to think that “Crypt” fans would definitely enjoy these. So did the Cryptkeeper. He told me so over drinks the other night.”
Me, Shane Lambert: “I see. I wonder how his breath was? On that matter, should someone read your stories if he or she has a weak stomach?”
John West, author: “I don’t write for people with weak stomachs. Anyone who struggles with the first story in the collection should stop reading immediately and consult a medical practitioner. Or pour a stiff drink and soldier on. Best keep the bottle nearby for emergencies.”
Me, Shane Lambert: “I guess when it comes to that kind of writing, if your reader pukes real bad — it means it’s good. Speaking of your readers, one of your fans, in his review, was happy with your work. However, he said that he didn’t like the South African slang in some parts. It does seem that if a story was set in South Africa, then realism requires slang common to that area so maybe the criticism isn’t entirely fair. But can you offer a quick glossary on the terms he might be referring to as a service to your future readers? Even just 2-3 South African slang words.”
John West, author: “I wrote this one for the South African fans who came out to buy my first novel at book fairs around Johannesburg. So, yes, I pushed the SA slang aspect this time, based on mates from 1980s Hillbrow (you know who you are).
Bra = brother/friend. Oke = guy. Make out = see/understand. Tune = tell.
All in all, it makes about as much sense as the rest of our delightful English language.”
Me, Shane Lambert: “Thanks for that. I think ‘Bra’ is common in my knack of the woods at least for meaning ‘brother/friend.’ Now, completely off topic. One of your short-story descriptions mentioned Jack the Ripper. As far as you can ‘tune,’ any guesses on what his identity might have been? What if I narrowed your choices down to Aaron Kosminski and Charles Lechmere? Hint-hint: an article about a short story with one ‘Charley Lechmere’ is the most popular blog on this website.”
John West, author: “Not John Williams? I’ve read theories ranging from Masons to demons. So Polish barbers and meat cart drivers are well within the realm of possibilities. If I had to choose between Aaron and Charles? I wouldn’t. I don’t believe records from the time are accurate enough to definitively prove it one way or another. Let Whitechapel keep its secrets.”
John West’s “Dancing in Valhalla” has a publication date at Amazon of April 21st, 2019. As for the reviews, it seems that those that have read it have enjoyed it. Described as “13 twisted tales of music, magick, mayhem & murder,” the eBook is available on Amazon on a variety of devices. It’s also available in a paperback edition.