No matter how a story starts or middles, there are only a few possible conclusions: Wilting confusion, hasty wrap-up, or a one-two punch.
Kundera always delivered, and EB White (read Stuart Little. I’m serious). Richard Ford. So too Harriet Doerr.
Never heard of her, you say? How can that be. But I know it can be, because several uber-well-read friends and acquaintances admit no familiarity with the name or her three books – one which won some big prize all the way back in the 1990s.
I found I'm quite happy working on a sentence for an hour or more, searching for the right phrase, the right word. I compare it to the work of a stonecutter -- chipping away at the raw material until it's just right, or as right as you can get it.
Harriet Doerr wrote three books. That’s it. But then, she didn’t start writing until she was 72 years old.
I think of what it is like to write stories. It is a completion. It is discovering something you didn’t know you’d lost. It is finding an answer to a question you never asked.
She was the granddaughter of Henry Huntington, railroad millionaire, of Huntington Library and Gardens fame (and boulevard, and hotel, and city and…). For a time, Harriet lived in the Pasadena El Molino, Europe, then Mexico. Then back to Pasadena. Some authors are difficult to quote. Doerr’s one. Her one-two punch needs the whole story, and the story isn’t just a set-up for the punch.
The rest of our dates that summer were unexceptional, consisting of movies and long, aimless drives at night. We headed north, east, south, or west, making here a right turn, there a left, circling one, or two, or three blocks at a time, passing dark houses and closed stores, and sometimes coming back to start again.
This was territory we knew and, at the same time, could scarcely recognize. It hung in space between heaven and earth.
She died in the 1990’s, in her 90s. But really, unless you’re a relative, only the work matters. I suggest starting with her collection “Tiger in the Grass.”
Two weeks after Great-aunt Alice died, Theo found a note in her bed table drawer. It must have been written on various occasions, months ago. The separate lines, penned and penciled, slanted independently across the page. For a moment, he thought it was a verse, unpunctuated.
Theo, it was headed.
Your father’s Mesopotamian journal might
Perhaps the piano tuner should
The Helen Trabel roses need
I had hoped
Maybe you’ll read these lines and shrug and think, well, that wasn’t so great. That's only because you're at my conclusion and we're tired of thinking. With Harriet Doerr, you really have to take it from the top.
Note: Dates are approximate. My fact-checker is on eternal vacation.