Curious to read more from Paul Fleischman’s varied oeuvre, I picked up a collection of three of his short stories that won a Newbery honor in 1983. Entitled Graven Images, the stories share a common element of some sort of statue or figure that represents something to the characters in the stories.
The first story in the collection is “The Binnacle Boy.” Set in the seaside town of New Bethany, Maine, it is the story of a ship, Orion, that returns to port with all its crew inexplicably deceased. The main character in the story is Miss Evangeline Frye, whose adopted son was on the Orion. Miss Frye’s home is within sight of the binnacle boy–the wooden statue that held the ship’s compass. It was taken off the ship and placed before the townhall as a sort of memorial for the ship’s crew. It quickly becomes a confessor for the people of the town, and it is looked at with awe and reverence. A cadre of town busybodies soon learn that Miss Frye’s hired girl can read lips (because she is hearing impaired), so they press her into service as their spies to learn the secrets of the town. These secrets include everything from the mundane to the deadly. The story ends with a shocking revelation of the identity of the person who killed the Orion‘s crew.
The second story is “Saint Crispin’s Follower,” and it is the story of a cobbler’s apprentice in Charleston, South Carolina, who is in love with a young woman, Juliana, who works in the local grocery. The master cobbler is always reminding his apprentice, Nicholas, about the patron saint of cobblers, Saint Crispin, and how he watches over cobblers and directs them. Thus, it is the metal weathervane in the shape of St. Crispin that becomes Nicholas’ compass, especially in relation to his pursuit of Juliana. This results in a comedy of errors that ultimately ends in the coming together of not just the one couple, but two.
The last story is “The Man of Influence,” which is the story of Zorelli, a proud stone carver. He has been without work for a while because although he lives in a prosperous (Italian?) trading city, his usual patrons, the tradesmen, have fallen on hard times. He is out wandering one night, engrossed in his own dejected thoughts, when he comes upon an apparition who hires him to carve a likeness of himself. The ghost hasn’t the appearance of one Zorelli would usually consider worthy of his craftsmanship, but because he promises Zorelli a more than adequate remuneration for his work, Zorelli consents. The result of Zorelli’s work is that he learns a lot about his own misplaced pride and judgment.
These are very sophisticated stories thematically. All three of them are what I would consider dark in tone, although the degree of darkness varies. By far the darkest is the first one, and I’ll admit I didn’t like it very much. “The Binnacle Boy” reminds me of something out of one of Hawthorne’s stories. My favorite by far is the third, “A Man of Influence.” One of its themes is that appearances can be deceiving, and I positively love that Zorelli learns that just because someone looks to be fine and upstanding doesn’t mean that he is. (I think this is something that we could all use more practice in discerning.) These stories remind me of something that might be in a high school literature anthology; in fact, they would make good comparison/contrast pieces to pair with works (like some of Hawthorne’s, for example) with similar themes.
Fleischman is a master wordsmith, that is for sure. I marked so many passages to share! Here are a few snippets from “Saint Crispin’s Follower”:
The shoemaker studied his lanky apprentice. The boy was thin as a wrought-iron picket, with a shirt that hung like a sail in a calm.
The apprentice stared at her in awe. His heart broke into a trot, then a gallop.
He looked down, and suddenly realized that his entire supply of words had fled his mind like a frightened flock of birds. Trembling, Nicholas glanced around, ransacked his brain for something to say, and finally , in desperation, mutely thrust the bouquet at Juliana.
These are the opening lines from “The Man of Influence.”
Lightning twitched like a dreaming dog’s legs. The wind blew. Rain fell. And Zorelli lay awake in the night.
And one final description which I love:
He eyed the ghost’s teeth, crooked and sparse, leaning like tombstones in a forgotten graveyard.
Fleischman’s writing is rich and entertaining. I wouldn’t say these stories are enjoyable, exactly, but if you don’t mind dark stories heavy with meaning and symbol, these are the stories for you.
My reviews of other books by Paul Fleischman