Versatile Shirley Jackson

Did you read the short story “The Lottery” in school? The story takes place in a small town, at an unstated time. Palpable excitement builds over a cherished town tradition. Which tradition, exactly, is revealed to the reader in pieces. We finally learn that one town member, chosen by lottery, is to be stoned to death.

I can’t remember when we read this. It couldn’t have been elementary school. Too dark. Maybe junior high. But more likely high school. I’d guess we read it along with The Crucible in ninth grade. Object lessons about the dangers of the collective.

Great literature echoes over the years. When The Hunger Games trilogy hit the young adult reading scene decades after my ninth grade, my mind immediately locked on to “The Lottery.”

Shirley Jackson also echoed when our older son was in kindergarten. Ted came home from kindergarten filled with stories. There was a boy named Brandon who wanted to be called Jose. Brandon-Jose was not very well-behaved. We were endlessly entertained by Ted’s reporting on whose “card got flipped.” (The teacher, bless her heart, had a behavior management system using cards. The children started each day with a green card under their names. Card were flipped to yellow, and then red, for poor behavior.)

These tales sent me back to a story I read in elementary school, from an anthology textboook. I vividly recalled odd, specific details of the story. In this story, a boy in kindergarten (Laurie) regaled his family each evening with the antics of a classmate “Charles.” The more outrageous Charles’ behavior, the more fascinated was the family. If you know the story, you know why it was the example in the textbook of foreshadowing as a literary device. The author planted clues that Charles was fabricated, an alter ego of Laurie himself.

Ted’s stories every day made me fear that I was living in that story. I had to track down the story to share with Ted’s teacher. I discovered that the author was Shirley Jackson. Could this Shirley Jackson writing about the shenanigans of a five year old be the same Shirley Jackson writing about death by stoning? Yes, I discovered, it was. This fact was hard for my brain to handle.

Fast forward to present day. Another echo. Ted is grown. This year he moved from working at a small start-up with a tight-knit nerd posse to working at a large, public company in California. He has a real boss, one he doesn’t live with. I checked her out (let’s call her V) on LinkedIn. V is an accomplished woman. She has a doctorate in computer science and impressive experience as a software engineer. Ted reports that she has children. I like her already.

One day Ted texted me:

“V said you should let her know when you are in town.”

So many possible interpretations of that statement. In the story “Charles,” Laurie’s mother is eager to meet Charles’ mother. At the PTA meeting, Laurie’s mother

“sat restlessly, scanning each comfortable matronly face, trying to determine which one hid the secret of Charles. None of them looked to me haggard enough.”

It’s not an innocent curiosity: there but for the grace of God go I.

“Let V know…” could simply mean that V wants to meet a woman farther down the twisty path of motherhood in a majority-male professional field. But we can’t rule out amused curiosity.

The Charles story is actually not a self-contained story, but rather an anecdote in Jackson’s Life Among the Savages, a collection of essays about her home life. The companion volume is called Raising Demons. Maybe horror and home life aren’t so separate, after all.

Raising kids is a walk in the park. Jurassic Park.

1 Comment

  1. Sue Jung Grant says: Reply

    You have a tenacious memory and a formidable ability to free-associate.

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