"A Prairie Girl" by Thomas McGuane Originally published in the February 27, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
I’ve been running behind on my New Yorker reading lately. Last night I made the goal (easy, since I have today off) to read the story in the morning, whatever it be. I was thrilled, then, that it was a story by Thomas McGuane, who I’ve been drawn to over the past years. His stories have a mixture of seriousness and humor, usually set in Montana or somewhere else in the American West, and this calls to me. I was also happy to see that the story was very short.
Though short, “A Prairie Girl” covers a lot of ground. It opens, I’m assuming, sometime in the last couple of decades of the twentieth century:
When the old brothel — known as the Butt Hut — closed down, years ago, the house it had occupied was advertised in the paper: “Home on the river: eight bedrooms, eight baths, no kitchen. Changing times force sale.”
The omniscient plural first-person narrator (quite a feat, if you can do it — it worked fine here; there is even a reference to the townspeople making up a fine Greek chorus) takes us comically through the history of the town by way of the brothel, presenting a nice local scene:
Who were they? Some were professionals from as far away as New Orleans and St. Louis. A surprising number were country schoolteachers, off for the summer. Some, from around the state, worked a day or two a week, but were otherwise embedded in conventional lives. When one of them married a local, the couple usually moved away, and over time our town lost a good many useful men — cowboys, carpenters, electricians. This pattern seemed to land most heavily on our tradespeople and worked a subtle hardship on the community. But it was supposed by the pious to be a sacrifice for the greater good.
When the brothel closed, all of the girls leave town save one, Mary Elizabeth Foley. She attended the Lutheran church and when a woman (her future mother-in-law) asked her where she was from, she said, “What business is it of yours?” McGuane goes for more humor: “Where was the meekness appropriate to a woman with her past? It was outrageous. From then on, the energy that ought to have been spent on listening to the service was dedicated to beaming malice at Mary Elizabeth Foley.”
Mary Elizabeth Foley is an ambitious woman, and she eventually weds — because she truly does love him and he loves her — Arnold, a gay man, the son of the president of the local bank. After all, “[s]he had been trained to accept the privacy of every dream world.”
The story moves quickly through their lives, much like an Alice Munro story. It says something for the story and its ambiguities that I wanted more, quite a bit more. I’m still trying to work out if that is a fault in an otherwise interesting story about the loving (though duplicitous) relationship between a former prostitute and a gay man in a tiny, judgmental community, but one where time can burnish faults. Where in a Munro story the clipped passage of time is part of the theme, I’m not sure it was here, and I wanted more room for the characters to develop.
Still, a nice story to get me back to reading The New Yorker fiction each week.