Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Horse, Flower, Bird by Kate Bernheimer

The Brothers Grimm cornered the market on fairy tales, and the original versions of them were often dark...far more frightening than the sanitized versions found in modern children's books.  This collection of short stories by Kate Bernheimer entitled Horse, Flower, Bird is a dark collection of tales as well...not suitable for children, because under the seemingly simple stories lies a violent understory.  The combination is disconcerting, and makes you wonder how the elements of fear and innocence could be combined so artfully.

I can't think of any short stories that are like this...the images create an almost instantaneous shot of pain, like a paper cut, when you grasp the author's meaning.  For example,  in "A Cuckoo Tale", a little girl speaks innocently of her feelings of guilt and anxiety (she didn't call it that) in a religious sense, so different from her Catholic friend.  "There was no talk of heaven or hell in the girl's household.  It was all about pogroms and rape."  While she tries to live a child's life, visions of Jews herded into ovens fill her too-young imagination.  She wonders why no one helped Anne Frank, who she calls "the girl who kept the diary."

In "A Doll's Tale", a little girl receives a beautiful doll as a gift...a doll far prettier than she.  She didn't like it, and so "confused by this feeling-for Astrid was a kind and gentle being-her ambivalence became a kind of devotion."  Her true feelings are revealed when she dumps it down a laundry chute.  However, the loss of it soon leaves her lonely, and she invents an invisible-friend.  There's no joy there, as the 'friend' suddenly disappears.  A painfully memorable picture is created when her and her father drive around, looking for the beloved invisible friend:

"This second loss proved too much for her, really.  Doll-less, invisible friend-less, finally more comfortable in fear than in gladness, Astrid began to live in her head...To outsiders, this...lent her a remarkably pleasing air, since she never had reason to interrupt anyone's talking."

Kate Bernheimer
 Even what promises to be an amusing story of little girls playing Jedi's from Star Wars takes a darker turn, when their imagination, fed by the careless conversations of adults, suddenly creates a world far more violent and ugly than the movie. 

The stories, while diverse and mysterious, all contain a theme of the loss of innocence.  And the source of such loss seems to be the a child's view of the world where an active imagination and lack of experience create troubling and sometimes dangerous visions.  Sometimes the simplest words can create a landscape of horror. 

Special thanks to Esther Porter of Coffee House Press for the Review Copy.


  1. This sounds like short stories that really hurt emotionally when you read them. They sound like they really make an impression. With regards to the loss of innocence, I just finish Lolita by Nabokov the other day, a book which also has focus on this theme.