Mrs. Hale stood examining the clothes the woman who was being detained in town had said she wanted.
"Wright was close!" she exclaimed, holding up a shabby black skirt that bore the marks of much making over. "I think maybe that's why she kept so much to herself. I s'pose she felt she couldn't do her part; and then, you don't enjoy things when you feel shabby. She used to wear pretty clothes and be lively--when she was Minnie Foster, one of the town girls, singing in the choir. But that--oh, that was twenty years ago."
With a carefulness in which there was something tender, she folded the shabby clothes and piled them at one corner of the table. She looked up at Mrs. Peters, and there was something in the other woman's look that irritated her.
"She don't care," she said to herself. "Much difference it makes to her whether Minnie Foster had pretty clothes when she was a girl."
Then she looked again, and she wasn't so sure; in fact, she hadn't at any time been perfectly sure about Mrs. Peters. She had that shrinking manner, and yet her eyes looked as if they could see a long way into things.
"This all you was to take in?" asked Mrs. Hale.
"No," said the sheriffs wife; "she said she wanted an apron. Funny thing to want, " she ventured in her nervous little way, "for there's not much to get you dirty in jail, goodness knows. But I suppose just to make her feel more natural. If you're used to wearing an apron--. She said they were in the bottom drawer of this cupboard. Yes--here they are. And then her little shawl that always hung on the stair door."
She took the small gray shawl from behind the door leading upstairs, and stood a minute looking at it.
commentary: My friend Chrissie Poulson recommended this short story to me - she correctly guessed that I would love it. It is not long: you can read it in half an hour, and you can find the text here online.
It is an extraordinary story.
It is set in the fictional Dickson County in the mid-West, presumably around the time it was written. The local law enforcement is going to look at a house where a dead man has been found: Martha Hale is asked to go along with her husband, who was the man who discovered the body. The dead man’s wife is in custody, and the sherriff’s wife has come to collect some clothes for her. She asks Mrs Hale to come along so she has some female company.
Off they go to the lonely house. Martha Hale reflects that she once was friendly with Minnie Wright, nee Foster, but even though they live not far from each other she rarely went to see her.
At the house the men try to work out what happened. The two women – who scarcely know, and don’t particularly like, each other – look round at her kitchen and think about the life of Minnie Wright. They see the cheerless room, her attempts to bottle fruit, her work on a quilt.
And that’s all it is: they work out what happened from the domestic clues that the men would not notice. But although this could be seen as a detective story, it is much more than that: it’s not about the women being cleverer or more observant than the men (although they are): it’s about psychology, about depth of feeling and empathy. It is about seeing into other people’s lives – both for the characters and for the reader.
It is described like this on Wikipedia:
The story is seen as an example of early feminist literature because two female characters are able to solve a mystery that the male characters cannot.But then that makes it sound too formal. It is a sad but lovely story: and although you don’t find out what the future will hold for the characters, that makes it all the more satisfying. The story is not all tied up and completed, it is left to your imagination. It is beautifully written, every word in place, very simple and readable and compelling.
It reminds me of the short stories of Tillie Olsen.
I think it is a perfect short story. Thanks Chrissie.
Picture from a 1913 book about farmers in Utah, via Flickr Commons.