Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Naomi J. Williams, "Snow Men"

Naomi J. Williams’s “Snow Men” (One Story 131, January 30, 2010) is a good character sketch and an interesting immersion in a different time and a different culture. That doesn’t mean it’s a great story, though. Narrated by a young Native American woman in 1786, “Snow Men” describes how a group of Native Americans encountered European explorers.

I can’t complain about the language. Unlike other stories narrated by a person from a different time (e.g.), anachronistic word choice is not an issue here because the story is translated into contemporary English. The metaphors are neither dry nor dazzling. The curiosity of the villagers about the natural world and about the European travelers is depicted convincingly. The story takes no noteworthy risks with the concatenation of events or the arrangement of ideas on paper. It starts, it finishes. No elations or gnashing of teeth along the way.

The real problem is that the story reveled in the historical background so much that almost nothing of interest happened in the foreground. Yes, the narrator was set to marry her cousin, but he died, and now she’s meant to marry her younger cousin. Yes, the narrator wanders off and finds the Snow Men (i.e., the Europeans), with two of whom she has a brief encounter. But plotting is mostly overlooked. The story thus reads like a lyricized ethnography. (Williams says in the interview that she retold an ethnographer’s account when writing the story.)

The One Story interview also helps us understand why the plot was so thin. “Snow Men” is part of a collection of interconnected stories that Williams is writing and edaciously researching. She probably felt she could afford not to have an arresting plotline here because she was working with a canvas larger than that occupied by this single story. For readers of the single story, though, something was missing.

The bit of advice Williams shares came to her from Yiyun Li. It’s worth repeating and remembering: “Your character’s problems should never be the story’s problems.”

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