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The Mother Anthony: Quenching my Thirst


More years ago than I really care to think about, I was a sophomore in high school. I, along with the rest of my classmates, was tasked by Mr. Heiser, my English teacher, with writing an original tall tale, similar to American whoppers involving larger than life heroes like Mike Fink, Paul Bunyan, or Johnny Appleseed. I had never tried to write any fiction before, but I was already an avid reader, having cut my teeth on Heinlein in the fourth grade, and moving on to Asimov, Bradbury, Clark, Del Ray, and the rest of the alphabet of science fiction Golden Age writers, along with C.S.Lewis, John Christopher, Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper and many others. I felt fairly confident I could write a decent tale.

I chose as my subject a Mr Paddy McBrae, an honest Irish-American who chanced upon a rather peculiar hole. Of course, if he hadn’t fallen in the hole, the story would have been much shorter, as well as completely boring, so I made sure he fell in. The hole stretched through the entire earth, including a very rapid trip through Hell, where Paddy wrestled the devil himself, winning a victory on points. Paddy eventually surfaced in China where, due to his rapid velocity, he plunged straight up into the sky, traveling through the sun itself, giving his skin a golden tone that he retained through the rest of his life. He landed back on earth, becoming the first of the Celestials, AKA Chinese.

Yep, politically, theologically, geologically, and geometrically incorrect, but hey, I was 13 and we didn’t have political correctness back then.

I turned in the story, and, in a surprise move, my teacher announced that he would read all the stories aloud for class commentary.

Yikes!

I was a non entity in high school, barely noticed, and dismissed almost instantly on the few occasions when I was noticed, and now my writing was about to be judged by the harshest and most merciless of audiences-adolescent high school kids. Ah well, the readings were to be anonymous, so at least my shame would be private rather than public.

The teacher began to read stories, and one member of the class, a laid back, laconic guy named Alex somehow became the arbiter of success for each story. While other students would give an opinion on the merits of a story, we all looked to Alex for his pronouncement. Again and again, he came back with the same verdict. “I’m still thirsty,” he’d say. “It’s missing something.” Story after story was read, and time after time, “I’m still thirsty.”

And then it was my turn. Mr. Heiser read the tale of Paddy McBrae and his trip through the center of the earth. When he reached the end, the class was silent, waiting for Alex.

“My thirst,” he said, “is quenched.”

That, friends and neighbors, was an awesome feeling. It wasn’t that I’d impressed one of my peers, or not just that; it was that something I’d written had satiated a hunger that couldn’t be expressed. Somehow, it had spoken to a person that I probably never spoke to face to face in my life. But we communicated through that story.

That’s pretty cool when you think about it and whether I write fiction, or non fiction, technical manuals or training materials, I try to make that connection, to satisfy that hunger, to quench that thirst.

Ironically, because the stories were read anonymously, nobody other than myself or Mr. Heiser knew who wrote the story. Until now.

And that brings me at long last to the subject of this post, “The Mother Anthony,” a story by Martin L. Shoemaker available for the Kindle (click the image above). The story concerns a young school teacher who accepts a job teaching children on a long interplanetary voyage. Things go wrong, as they so often do, and her job goes on for far longer than she expects. I read through the story pulled along by the events, and more importantly, the characters and although it went in directions I didn’t expect, it went exactly where it was supposed to go. As I read the last words of the story, I felt like standing up and saying “My thirst is quenched.” Shoemaker crafted a story that resonates on a deeper level than the deceptively simple narrative. Characters don’t react in the way we’ve come to expect in fiction, but in a way that is integral with who they are. The surprises, comic and tragic, are genuine because the come from the characters, not contrived circumstances. The impact of this is immeasurable. It’s like the difference between Jason Voorhees coming back to life (yet again) at the end of the movie to shock everybody and Bruce Willis discovering he is a ghost at the end of The Sixth Sense. In the latter case, it’s initially a surprise, but then you realize that you should have known it all along because it fits. In the former, it’s a contrivance that quickly becomes a running gag.

In lesser hands, the plot could have been a simple castaway story, one where people triumph over adversity. Instead, Shoemaker has crafted a character study of people placed in unexpected positions, and how they change because of it, which is what good fiction is all about, as Mr. Heiser always told us. Characters have to grow and change, and Shoemaker shows us changes, both good and bad, for his characters. More importantly, you care about the characters and the changes. You want things to go differently for them, even as you accept the almost inevitability of events, and the characters reactions to them. Bess Anthony is a teacher and she remains true to that calling, regardless of the costs or circumstances. She feels a responsibility to her kids, and she grows in strength and courage in order to fulfill that responsibility.

In the end, “The Mother Anthony” is a story less about space and more about teachers, and in Bess Anthony, he captures the essence of the teacher we all wish we had, that some of us were lucky to have, and that I wish all teachers would strive to be.

It’s one hell of a story and I recommend it without reservation. The link image above is for the story by itself which costs $3.99, but you can get it for free as part of the Science Fiction Writers Sampler available for the Kindle.

Now, if you will excuse me, Mr. Shoemaker has some more stories out there that I want to read, including one in the newest edition of “The Year’s Best Science Fiction” which you can purchase from Amazon using the picture below.

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