Stephen Vincent Benét (1924 – 1984)
American poet (John Brown’s Body), short story writer (The Devil and Daniel Webster), and novelist.
Too Early Spring, first published in Tales Before Midnight, a short story collection, in 1939
Available to read online here
This is the second of five stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Subjective Narration. Here’s how their introduction continues: “The following stories are all told by one of the characters after the conclusion of events and the “speaker” is supposed to be addressing us, the general public, not himself or another character. In some of these stories, however, he may sound like a correspondent, or diarist; we may feel he is “using” us or assuming something we don’t assume. Furthermore, as the speaker usually makes clear, the events have not been over very long, although the time gap between the happening and the telling varies a lot among the stories.”
Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!
Too Early Spring
Young Chuck starts his tale by saying he’s writing it down because he never wants to forget “the way it was”. He sets the scene with basketball practice, and how he’s been encouraged by his brother Kerry, and by mentioning a guy named Tot Pickens, who’s a bit of a louse.
We soon meet Helen, “the Sharon kid”. The Sharon family have only been in town for three years or so, and Chuck has never really noticed her before. But slowly, and gently, the pair fall in love. They’re very respectful of each other, but they talk as if they are an old married couple, fantasising about the house they will have lived in for ages, and the times they have spent together. They work out they will have had seven children, how their kids would have been educated, and how perfect their life together would be.
One day Chuck’s team wins an important basketball match. Mr Grant, the coach, sets up a big celebration meal. But none of Chuck’s immediate family can attend, and Helen stays away because that’s what the girls did. But Chuck wants to continue the celebration later into the evening and decides he will go and visit Helen at her home to let her know the good news. Helen’s parents are also out, but she lets him in and they chat in front of the fire, in their usual, relaxed, respectful way. But the match was tiring, and it’s getting late, and both fall asleep….
…to be awoken by a whirlwind of fury as Helen’s parents return and discover them, put two and two together and assume that Chuck has taken advantage of Helen. Strangely incapable of defending themselves, they become the subjects of shame and gossip. The parents ensure the two never meet again, Chuck gets sent to a college in Colorado, and Helen eventually is moved to a convent.
This bittersweet little story truly has a sting in its tail. The reader suspects right from the start that something has gone wrong and maybe fears a wrongdoing that is much worse than what actually happens. There is a huge sense of tragedy through the misunderstanding that a genuinely charming and loving relationship, which has been conducted throughout with total decency, is brought to an abrupt end through no other fault than falling asleep.
Benét’s writing is measured and sensitive, deliberately introducing a small amount of uncertainty to give the climax of the story a little extra light and shade. The characters are very well drawn as clean-cut All American kids of good morals and decency, and the sad ending is very believable. The two youngsters will live their lives always wondering what if.
The next story in the anthology is the third of the subjective narration stories, My Sister’s Marriage by Cynthia Marshall Rich. Ms Rich is an unknown quantity to me, so that should be interesting!