The Osage Orange Tree: A Story By William Stafford, illustrated by Dennis Cunningham
This is a story that might be true, and is a bittersweet story about the poet’s youth in Kansas. What is most remarkable about this story is the way that it has layers of meaning and resonance in a deceptively simple format, and with framing that is matter-of-fact and ultimately sympathetic to the people who are written about, including the poet himself. Stafford was, as might be imagined , an immensely prolific writer who had the discipline to write nearly every single day of his adult life, regardless of what mood he was in or what he wanted to write about. The particular essay/story in this book won first prize at the Oregon Centennial in 1959 in the short fiction category, but the story bears a strong imprint of factuality and may in fact be a nonfiction story or at least a fictional story with heavy nonfictional elements. A story this mundane, and this bereft of exaggeration and sensationalism bears the stamp of truth. It shows someone whose moral imagination is immensely expansive, and who really understands the emotional reticence of much of rural and small town America with a strong degree of sympathy for people in such areas.
The story itself is deceptively simple. William Stafford portrays himself as the son of a traveling salesman (a factual detail) who is a bit of a stranger in the small Kansas town where he is working as a paperboy during his senior year in order to help the family make ends meet during the Great Depression. During the course of his work he meets a poor and somewhat awkward young woman whose takes his paper but doesn’t invite William inside and whose older brother is a janitor at the school. As the story progresses, we see William Stafford as a keen outsider observing her shyness and her absence at high school graduation, where he speaks out about her absence and finds out that she did not walk for graduation because she apparently stole from a bank in order to pay for a graduation dress. The author then wanders over to her house only to find her angry mother and to see that the papers he had sold the girl had been thrown aside as the rubbish that Stafford himself thought they were, leaving him in a reflective mood about why it is that the girl had purchased the subscription in the first place.
There are a lot of questions that the reader has about this essay. For one, how much of it was true? Did Stafford make any of the details up about his friendship with the girl or his dogged efforts at selling a newspaper everyday despite not having any particular respect or regard for its journalistic integrity? Does a great deal of Stafford’s own quiet moral authority as a writer in this story reflect his own concern about the well-being of the girl and his own awkwardness about communication and his general shyness and timidity as a young man, all of which gain a great deal of sympathy from many readers of such works? What would have been the girl’s perspective of this story? Was her act one of polite sympathy for an observant but generally kind outsider or was this a shy attempt at courtship and flirtation on her part? There is much that one wonders when one reads a story like this, and as is his fashion, William Stafford leaves things unexplained and lets the reader come to his or her own judgments and conclusions about the weighty and nuanced interactions and the simple but effective craft of his storytelling. The illustrations throughout are excellent as well, done in an orange tone that recalls the story’s titular awkward orange tree.
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