Monday, February 13, 2012

"The Farmer's Children" by Elizabeth Bishop

"Once, on a large farm ten miles from the nearest town, lived a hard-working farmer with his wife, their three little girls, and his children from a former marriage, two boys aged eleven and twelve."
It begins like a fairy tale, complete with a stepmother, princess-like half sisters, and two motherless boys. When Elizabeth Bishop adds in oppressive cold and a full moon, the tale quickly turns dark and foreboding. Since their father and the hired man (who usually sleeps in the barn) have gone to town, Cato and Emerson must take his place in the barn and guard against vandals. Cato decides it's a "night  for the crumbs" and hides four slices of bread under his sweater during dinner. On the way to the barn, he leaves his trail of crumbs.
"Outside it was almost as bright as day. The macadam road looked very gray and rang under their feet, that immediately grew numb with the cold. The cold stuck quickly to the little hairs in their nostrils, that felt painfully stuffed with icy straws. But if they tried to warm their noses against the clumsy lapels of their mackinaws, the freezing moisture felt even worse, and they gave it up and merely pointed out their breath to each other as it whitened and then vanished. The moon was behind them. Cato looked over his shoulder and saw how the tin roof of the farmhouse shone, bluish, and how, above it, the stars looked blue, too, blue or yellow, and very small; you could hardly see most of them."
Inside the barn, the boys are cold and scared. Judd's blankets are nowhere to be found and the farm implements look malevolent in the moonlight. They long to follow their breadcrumb trail home before sunrise. Unsurprisingly, the story ends in tragedy. It is a peaceful tragedy, one that I was not expecting.

Bishop's writing is very visual, allowing the reader to "see" every detail as the story unfolds. Although Elizabeth Bishop is best known for her poetry, I am happy to discover her short stories.

I read "The Farmer's Children"in The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike. It also appeared in Harper's Bazaar in 1949.  Unfortunately, I could not find the story on the internet.

Short Story Monday is hosted by John Mutford at The Book Mine Set.


  1. I studied her poetry in college (shamefully, probably the last time I read it!) but never knew that she wrote fiction too. You're inspiring me to read more short stories, you know...

  2. Although short, it sounds pretty powerful. That picture really grabbed me too...reminded me of home.

  3. Sounds like an interesting retelling of the fairytale. My class love Anthony Browne's retelling, it's more modern and has the parents kicking their children out so they can use the money they would have spent on their food to buy cigarettes and scratchcards.

  4. I love Bishop's poetry, but am not familiar with her stories. Will definitely try to find this one--it sounds wonderful. Thank you.

  5. This is a short story that I would like to read. I've not heard of this author or her poetry either.

  6. I was surprised to find poet Langston Hughes also wrote short storied. Someone should compile a list of these multi-taskers!

  7. Loved the snippets you offered us. I know I always say it but I do need to give the short story more of an effort!!

  8. You made me very curious now. (Not a good thing) LOL I haven't read anything by this author.

  9. You will not believe this but I think this is one of the books that we inherited from my great uncle. I swear I just saw it the other day when I was moving books around. I've got to go check!

  10. Audrey - I haven't really read poetry since college, and never enjoyed short stories until I started blogging. A time for everything, I guess :-)

    Sandy - That picture screams midwest to me... so perfect for the story.

    Sam - Fairy tales make for wonderful short stories, don't they?

    DS - I had no idea Bishop wrote short stories - would be interested in your opinion of this one.

    Kathleen - It's a wonderful story - very easy to see why it was included in this collection!

    John - I'd definitely be interested in that list. Elizabeth Bishop's short stories certainly surprised me.

    Staci - Short stories may just surprise you...

    Diane - I'm sorry ;-)

    Lisa - No way! Will be curious to hear if it really was...

  11. Too bad you couldn't find it online, I would love to read it. Perhaps my library has the book it came from. I'll have to look.

  12. I had no idea she wrote short stories either! This looks great, I will look for the book.

  13. Teddy Rose - I know! I really thought I'd be able to find it online and was very disappointed when I couldn't locate a link to share :-(

    Medea - I hope you can find it. I plan to look for more of her poetry, too!

  14. It sounds really good! I will have to look for it at the library!

  15. Peggy - Hope you can find it... sorry I couldn't find a link.

  16. My library had it, here's my review:

    1. Teddy Rose - I'm so glad your library had the book! Thanks for directing me to your post.


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