24 March 2020: "Unearth" Critique
In my college fiction workshop, whenever we read a fellow student's story, we were required to write up a critique, in which we summarized the story, determined what it was about thematically (we called it the Big A, as in "what is the story About?"), and then focused on specific details of the story to explain what we liked and what we thought could use improvement.
While I am no longer in college and forced to do these fiction critiques, I find them very useful when I'm reading published work; by analyzing the stories in this way, I think about them more critically and I pick up on details that I might have missed otherwise. Additionally, by reading others' work and critiquing it in this way, it helps me as a writer to find strategies that I either want to employ or avoid.
With this in mind, I wrote a critique of the short story "Unearth" by Alicia Elliott, which I read in The Best American Short Stories 2018.
In “Unearth” by Alicia Elliott, the story follows Beth, an elderly woman who receives a call that her long-missing brother, Henry, was found buried on the grounds of a residential school. As the story progresses, it is revealed that her family is Native Mohawk, though her mother, Mary, decided to Americanize after being encouraged by Father Landry. Henry was also sent to the residential school, at Landry’s suggestion, but then disappeared, never having attended the school. Landry also disappeared for six months, after which time Mary unraveled and attacked him, which landed her in prison for a ten-year sentence. Beth was then enrolled in the residential school and adopted by an Anglican family, though throughout the story, she censors her Americanized name as T⸺. In the present, Beth calls her daughter, Lindsay, questioning whether she was a good mother, and tells her daughter that her brother, Henry, was found at the residential school; Lindsay had been unaware of Henry’s existence and that Beth had attended the school. Beth later drives out to the ‘rez’ to buy corn in order to make the corn mush her mother used to make before Henry’s disappearance, and she is recognized as Mohawk by the cashier. She makes the corn mush and wonders if her brother used to pretend that the food at the school was the mush, as she did.
This story is about the trauma of forced assimilation—due to the Americanization that her family undergoes, Beth loses her brother, her mother is sent to prison for assaulting the man responsible for Henry’s disappearance, Beth is placed into a residential school, where she is stripped of her culture, she’s adopted by an Anglican family, and she loses her ability to fluently speak and understand the Mohawk language. Unfortunately, Native families have been either forced or pressured to assimilate, otherwise they are often left to the reservations, the needs of which are neglected by the government. While not much of a choice, it is still one made out of desperation.
A great strength of this story is its use of the negative history of residential schools. While not explicitly stated in the story, residential schools were often used as tools of assimilation, to forcibly separate Native peoples from their cultures. As was said in the story, “Henry’s makeshift grave was on the grounds of the old residential school. Of course it was. Of course. What was that famous Sir John A. Macdonald quote? Kill the Indian, save the man? Turned out killing the Indian saved no one. It just killed Indians.” This quote serves two purposes: the literal interpretation, where Native Americans were often killed and brutalized under the guise of ‘saving them,’ and secondly, as an analogy for the death of Native cultures propagated by residential schools. Though in the second meaning, they are still alive, their Native identity has been stripped from them and they have essentially ‘killed the Indian.’ Residential schools forbade students from speaking their native languages, growing out their hair, and other expressions of their culture, and they often were malnourished, were forced to do heavy labor, and endured harsh punishments for disobedience. Unfortunately, while some students were forcibly taken to these schools, some parents sent their children because it was the only form of education available to them.
Throughout the story, Americanization is portrayed negatively as well. It starts with Beth’s mother’s conversion to the Anglican church, when she “traded their Mohawk names for those of English monarchs” with Landry’s encouragement. At this moment, those former names are not mentioned, but the consistent censoring of Beth’s last name indicates a subtle act of rebellion: she may have assimilated, she may have been adopted by an Anglican family, but that doesn’t mean that her American last name is her true name. Still, Beth is forced to attend the residential school and her adoptive family “liked her pale skin, her tragedy. They liked how she forced herself to smile. She excelled at school, excelled in her career, excelled at passing, at forgetting. Beth was saved after all.” This serves as a pointed jab at the forced assimilation that she underwent at the school, all the while returning to the Macdonald quote.
After Henry disappears, Mary begins to gloss over “his youthful imperfections” and portrays him as the perfect child whenever Beth makes mistakes. “At first this bothered Beth; she was a good daughter, a good student. Her mistakes were no more notable than any kid her age. But now that Henry was gone he never made any mistakes. His very absence invited imagined mythologies to crystallize into facts.” Idealizing the dead in this way clearly does not help Beth, but it also serves as an unhealthy coping mechanism for Mary—in her mind, her child might be dead, but at least he was perfect.
The corn mush also plays a large role in this story: when she was younger, it served as a treat for Beth; when Henry disappears, Mary stops making the mush and stops caring about the food she prepares, often burning what she cooks; when Beth learns that Henry’s body has been found, she gets a taste in her mouth that reminds her of that burnt food, of the times before that when she got to eat the corn mush; she eventually goes to the reservation to buy corn to make the mush, at which point she wonders “if Henry missed their corn mush while he was at school, this treat their mother prepared so lovingly. Maybe he tried to pretend the stringy gruel they were fed was this corn mush, as she had so many years ago.” What can be gathered from the corn mush is that when Beth learns about her brother’s body being found at the school, it triggers a need for comfort and, in a sense, nostalgia for the happy times before his death.
When Beth wonders about Henry missing the corn mush, the moment is bittersweet—she tries to forge a connection between her brother and herself, trying to imagine a shared experience, however, she can’t be certain. “When Mary went to the school and inquired, she was told Henry didn’t go there. In fact, he’d never gone there. No records existed. She was mistaken.” It is implied that Henry attended the school, died either from natural causes or due to the abuses suffered at the school, and then his death was covered up, but there is also the possibility that he had never attended the school at all, was killed by Landry, and then was buried on the grounds. After all, Landry had disappeared for six months. With this alternate theory in mind, Beth would be imagining something that had never occurred at all—if he had died before he ever attended the school, he never would have tasted the gruel, and never would have imagined it was the corn mush instead.
One thing the story could have done differently was having Beth make the corn mush with her daughter, Lindsay. She has a moment where she questions whether she was a good mother, and though she is reassured, it would have made for a nice moment to have Beth sharing this aspect of their culture with her daughter. The residential school may have stripped away other aspects of her heritage, but she still can make the corn mush and share that knowledge with Lindsay; Americanization didn’t take that away from her. There is nothing to say that she doesn’t eventually do this off the page, but it would have made for a good ending to see mother and daughter bonding.
Ultimately, I enjoyed this story; I think it was very well written and touches on some serious subjects while evoking genuine emotion.