Review #10: Stranger by Patricia Russo

Posted by Nicky Drayden on Feb 13, 2010 in Reviews |

Published by Fantasy Magazine, February 1, 2010

The Story:

The Blue Heart clan prides itself on its hospitality, offering a complete stranger room in their already cramped underground quarters on the eve of the stinging rains. It’d be barbaric to leave a man above ground to be burned alive, so there’s no doubt one of the clan’s nests will make room for him. It’s only a matter of which one.

Roday watches as the families scramble with their last-minute preparations to go underground, helping out when she can. But she’s an old woman with no family of her own, not much use to anyone. Sure the other women smile at her, make polite conversation, but no one will offer her accommodations during the stinging rain. Roday holds onto hope despite herself, hinging her fate on the strength of thinning family lines. But when the stranger comes to her, his accent thick and his words bent sideways to her ear, Roday learns that her life might still be useful to someone after all.

The Craft: Beginnings

SPOILERS

The opening sentence is a mouthful at nearly sixty words, completely glossing over the introduction of the stranger for some interesting details and world building. We quickly learn that family gossip is important to these people, and that they’re living in a polyandrous society, possibly matriarchal. The end of the paragraph sets an urgent tone, women working to beat the oncoming stinging rains that will force the clan below ground. This paragraph works overtime, giving us setting, some characterization, some interesting details, and a looming problem.

In the next few paragraphs, the problem intensifies. We find out that families are arguing about family lines and obligations to take relatives in. The importance of family ties is reinforced here. Resources are slim and space is tight, but there’s no doubt that some family will offer to provide shelter for the stranger, because that is the Blue Heart clan’s way. And yet the reader feels uneasy about Roday’s situation. Her own position has not been secured, and although she has a hard time admitting it to herself, it’s obvious that everyone is avoiding her. And so we come to Roday’s real problem and the premise of the story — what worth is an old woman to anyone?

This story hits at a fear that all readers can relate to. It’s easy to slip into Roday’s point of view, feeling useless, hopeless. Then the stranger enters her life, and despite his odd manners and twisted speech, he reaches out to her in his own way.  He knows the importance of life, and is trying to atone for the three lives that he’d taken. He’s hurting, and Roday doesn’t understand why he won’t take the Blue Heart clan’s offer for safety, to live. But for the stranger, living is not enough.

This very effective beginning makes the ending really resonate. The themes of obligation and kinship set up in the first few paragraphs of the story run strongly and effectively through the entire piece. The forces that make Roday an outcast in the beginning are the same ones that deliver her salvation. The solution is a simple one in plot, but huge in characterization. The stranger saves her with a tie of kinship, a priceless gift to Roday, and her very life brings the stranger closer to fixing and unfixable wound in his own heart.

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