Friday, May 22, 2009

A Classic Short Story

Last winter I took a class on the short story. I have long been a fan of Eudora Welty, but somehow I had never read one her best known stories - “Why I Live at the P.O.”. Welty worked for the WPA as a publicity photographer in the 30's, and she has said the story was inspired by a woman she saw ironing in the back room of a small rural post office in Mississippi.

The story, set in China Grove, Mississippi, is told as a monologue by Sister, who has moved into the post office (“the next to smallest P.O in the state of Mississippi”) after quarreling with her family. The quarrel was prompted by the return home of her sister Stella-Rondo, whom Sister resents because she has stolen Sister's beau Mr. Whitaker by telling him that Sister was one-sided - “Bigger on one side that the other, which is a deliberate, calculated falsehood: I'm the same.” Sister could certainly be categorized as an unreliable narrator, but I don't think I've ever read a funnier one. The quarrel escalates as the various family members – Mama, Papa-Daddy, Uncle Rondo – fail to take her side and refuse to question Stella-Rondo about the “very peculiar-looking child” Shirley-T whom she has brought home with her and whom she claims is adopted. Stella-Rondo is twelve months younger than Sister, and as is often the case with siblings, she knows how to push her older sister's buttons. With her help Sister succeeds in hilariously infuriating all the family members.

Welty is known and beloved for her talent of infusing her stories with the authentic flavor of Mississippi. Sister, clearly the cook of the family, finds time to try “to stretch two chickens over five people” and make green-tomato pickles and watermelon rind preserves while she bickers. But I doubt that Sister will remain at the P.O. too long. She's far too curious to get to the bottom of her sister's reappearance, and it's clear that family spats are an essential source of entertainment in this China Grove household. Welty paints them all so vividly that I hated to leave them.

There's a wonderful reading of this story by Stockard Channing on PRI's Selected Shorts.

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