Thomas Pierce: “Shirley Temple Three”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Thomas Pierce’s “Shirley Temple Three” was originally published in the December 24 & 31, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.

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Before reading “Shirley Temple Three” I had never heard of Thomas Pierce, and I wondered if this story about a dwarf mammoth in the 21st century would be a worthy end of 2012′s year in New Yorker fiction. It is an exceptional story, and I recommend you take advantage of being able to read it for free via the link above.

Yes, a dwarf mammoth in the 21st century. Who would have thought such a concept could engender such a touching, yet lonely, story? When the story begins, we meet our central character, Mawmaw, an elderly, kindly, religious woman, as she attends the wedding of a niece or nephew (we don’t know which). She’s frustrated at her son, Tommy, who is supposed to be there and who will now obviously miss the whole thing. When he calls, she doesn’t answer the phone: “What’s crystal clear is that he doesn’t give two hoots about anyone but himself.”

But soon she’s back in her empty house, her anger at Tommy simmering as she gets ready for the night. Then, just about asleep, she hears him arrive:

The porch lights hum with a new electricity. If the moon could radiate more light, it would. Tommy is home. She wants to sing. She wishes the party weren’t over so everyone could see her son.

Tommy has returned and suddenly all is well. This is such a strange, and yet completely familiar, reaction. The presence, the connection: that makes up for a lot, even if it shouldn’t.

The reason Tommy is late — though we have no reason to think he would have been on time otherwise — is because he was helping someone, maybe a girlfriend, out of a problem. Tommy is the host of a popular television show, Back from Extinction. On each episode, through cloning, the show brings back some long-lost animal. Tommy goes around, learning about the animal, watching it interact with the world, and finally the animal is put in the show’s zoo. Every once in a while, the science produces twins. This is a legal nightmare, and the way around it is to kill one of the siblings. The girl Tommy may or may not be dating (he isn’t sure himself) is the one in charge of performing the procedure, and she just couldn’t do it with this dwarf mammoth. Tommy offered to take it to his mother’s house, for a while, until they figured out what to do.

Mawmay’s response: “What’s a goshdern Bread Island Dwarf Whatever doing in my yard?” But she takes it on.

There are many layers to this story. For one, they name the mammoth Shirley Temple, but Mawmaw has a bit of a problem with this since there has already been a Shirley Temple: their dog, who died alone under the porch. They opt for Shirley Temple Two before realizing, hey, this is actually Shirley Temple Three given the original Shirley Temple. This is just a replica of names and not of bodies, but as we watch Mawmaw’s relationship with the mammoth develop, we know that some of the feelings she has for it go back to the days when Shirley Temple was her dog, not her mammoth.

Furthermore, without ever making it an issue of the story, we know that some of Mawmaw’s friends, especially those at God’s Sacred Light, don’t like what Tommy does. Is the cloning ethical? As I said, it’s an issue for those people, but not one for this story. Shirley Temple Three is actually a story about relationships, loneliness, and emptiness.

As the months go by, Mawmaw rarely hears from Tommy. He doesn’t even return her calls when she is worried about Shirley Temple Three’s despondency. It’s obvious that he, and probably his girlfriend, couldn’t bear to hurt the animal, but they don’t actually want the burden of the animal. And Tommy doesn’t want the burden of Mawmaw. Mawmaw and Shirley Temple Three are both virtually alone in this world. Shirley Temple Three had an exact replica some 10,000 years ago, and that replica may have had a mate and children, but this mammoth is alone and spiritually dying. Mawmaw herself has no mate. Tommy’s father was an accountant from another town who came to speak at Mawmaw’s night class. He was already married: “Kyle couldn’t leave his wife, but he was a real gentleman about all of it and mailed regular checks until the day he died of a heart attack.” It’s sad to see what she tells herself to get along in this lonely life where no one loves her.

Now there’s really only Tommy, whom she lives for, but he certainly doesn’t live for her. Love here are not about the flesh and blood but about the burdens. The only real relationship we see is the one between Mawmaw and Shirley Temple Three because it is Mawmaw who goes through the long hours watching Shirley Temple Three’s decline.

Some have compared this piece to George Saunders, and I can see that to a point, especially since this story also relies on a far-fetched concept. However, and thankfully from my perspective, Pierce doesn’t bring attention to the strange concept and doesn’t employ other devices, like word gimmicks and the like, to underly how absurd it all is. It’s presented naturally — a bit comically, sure – but the absurdity is not the main point; it’s not even a point. This is no piece of social criticism (and I’ve thought Saunders’ pieces have been mostly shallow social criticism lately). Rather, this is a moving story about a woman who is approaching death alone, and though she thinks she feels God in the wind at night, she also worries that maybe it’s still the seventh day and God is still sleeping.

17 thoughts on “Thomas Pierce: “Shirley Temple Three””

  1. Betsy says:

    “Shirley Temple Three”, by Thomas Pierce is, like Mark Twain, both wry and serious at the same time. I found the story interesting, completely coherent, amusing, and thoughtful. It was also strangely apropos of this particular, very difficult, week in history.

    An Atlanta reality TV show clones a pair of extinct animals, films them “in the wild” as if they were one animal, and then usually deposits one in a zoo and euthanizes the other. The heroine of this story is a little woolly mammoth twin that escapes its designated death, only to end up being hidden by the reality show host at his mother’s house.

    The story is seen and felt through the eyes of said mother (MawMaw), and there is much that is deft, original, respectful and entertaining in her characterization. There is, as well, some interesting thinking in the story about evolution, cloning, euthanasia, modern society and religion.

    But, essentially, what matters in this story (besides its masterful, light tone) is that the mammoth “fails to thrive”.

    Who could not imagine that? Imprisoned, alone, with neither mother nor mate, its hair falls out, it cannot eat, and it wails into the night. Isolation is a killer.

    “Shirley Temple Three” has legs. What I mean is that while at first it feels slight, in the end it feels rich. It’s alive. I enjoyed the story so much that I am putting off reading the author interview; I’d like the story to live a little while completely on its own. The title, by the way, refers first to Shirley Temple herself; then to a dog, who was Shirley Temple Two; and now, the little woolly mammoth, who is Shirley Temple Three.

    The triple Shirley is a comment on cloning, but also might as well be a comment on story telling itself – that you can tell the same story a thousand different ways, and we will still enjoy it. Maybe it’s the frisson of realizing – here it is again – that adventure – that truth.

    For instance, Pierce’s story reminds me of T.C. Boyle’s “Tooth and Claw”; both are completely imagined and completely alive. But while Boyle’s wild cat utterly destroys the space where it is imprisoned (and terrifies its captor), the mammoth embodies a wilting, consuming loneliness while at the same time inducing its human to care.

    To me these two stories speak to each other – they express a couple of sides to captivity and its effects.

    Another piece that seems like a companion to Pierce’s story is a non-fiction memoir in this week’s Sunday New York Times (12/16/2012), printed in its “Modern Love” section. In “A Sister’s Comfort, If Not a Cure”, Tara Ebrahimi writes eloquently about isolation as well, telling about her mentally ill adult brother, who after many trials, many hospitalizations, and many sorrows, was asked what he wanted. He said, “I want a normal life. I want to work. I want a girlfriend. I want a car. ..I want some nice friends.”

    Among other things, Pierce’s woolly mammoth wanted “a normal life”. Isolation is a killer.

    I look forward to reading more by Thomas Pierce. I thought it was a compelling choice for this week, especially following MArisa Silver’s “Creatures”, although I have no way of knowing when it was dropped into its time slot.

  2. Trevor says:

    I can’t read your thoughts yet, Betsy, because you’re ahead of me :) . However, I am excited that for the next story your comment will be in the post above!

  3. Thomas says:

    Pierce is a grad student in the MFA program at UVA (I googled his name since I, too, had never heard of him). I really enjoyed your thoughts Betsy. I’m not sure, however, that this piece resonated with me quite as much, though I found the premise to be wonderfully delightful (reminiscent of George Saunders).

  4. Trevor says:

    I’ve finished this now and will post my thoughts soon. I wanted to get on here, though, and say how much I enjoyed this one.

  5. Betsy says:

    Nice to hear from you, Thomas, and thanks for the biographical information about Mr. Pierce. It is really interesting to hear that the New Yorker is pursuing younger writers, MFA candidates, at that.

  6. Trevor says:

    Finally got my thoughts in some order above.

  7. Betsy says:

    Trevor – In your telling commentary about “Shirley Temple Three, you touch on the way Pierce lightly touches on religion, but actually make this a story about “relationships, loneliness, and emptiness.”

    I’m with you. That’s a nice distinction you make about Pierce’s craft: that he uses the reality TV show to draw us in, but he’s carefully light on these “issues”, making the point that it’s actually real people taking care of real people that matters most.

    Having finally read it, I recommend Thomas Pierce’s interview with Cressida Leyshon. He touches on sons and mothers, religion, and (yep) woolly mammoths.

  8. Aaron says:

    Trevor, Betsy, I’m on the same page with you guys about the story’s merits and points — and yes, I’ll even cop to making the Saunders comparison — but we split apart when it comes to the ending, which I find wholly incomplete and unsatisfying. Yes, it’s about the lonely creatures Mawmaw and ST3 — physically and spiritually, and it’s telling that we turn to the physical before settling on the spiritual — but I’m not sure why Mawmaw is only NOW realizing that she’s alone . . . she seems to have been at that point at the start of the story, too. I’m also unclear on Tommy’s motives re: the mammoth . . . why HASN’T he euthanized it (especially if he doesn’t care about his mother, which seems unlikely, since he goes to great lengths to cover up for someone who isn’t even officially his girlfriend)? Why, when the mammoth goes missing, is he relieved? (OK — on second though, it may just be that he thinks it’s already dead and buried, thereby getting him off the hook.)

    I’ve posted more on my blog (http://bit.ly/VcUJDw), but I guess I just don’t feel connected enough to the individual characters to really answer these final questions in a satisfactory way. We get a lot about the relationship between Mawmaw and her son and her mammoth, but not very much about Mawmaw herself, nor about the son’s motivations and, for obvious reasons, what the mammoth itself is actually going through. These things that are happening to it — are any of them natural?

  9. Carlos says:

    This blog is a treasure for readers. Thanks!
    I’ve really enjoyed “Shirley Temple Three”. it’s so rich, particularly for all its implications. Betsy says it has legs -I’d rather use the image of wings, broken wings, if seen from Mawmaw’s perspective. In any case, I agree that this is a story of “relationships, loneliness, and emptiness.” It is admirable how Pierce had the discipline to leave all the other interesting themes that the story has left aside. I would like to underline here the relevance of Dr. Mark Sing’s visit. I think this part if brilliant. The doctor, described as a tired man who’s very gentle to Shirley Temples Three, is not astonished or surprised to see the mammoth. Moreover, he is quite indifferent to the secrecy required by Mawmaw -”Who would believe me anyway?” Who would take isolation seriously?

  10. Trevor says:

    Hi Carlos, and thanks for the kind words. Sorry it has taken me so long to respond with thanks — these holidays were particularly busy and lazy :) .

  11. Ken says:

    I agree more with Aaron. I thought this an interesting story but not a complete success. What I had a problem with is the open ending. It didn’t seem to serve the story well to have the mammoth just wander off to an unknown fate. I’m not asking for a conclusion to questions of cloning or evolution or loneliness but I felt the story could have a bit more closure. I liked the way MawMAw was rendered increasingly complex and sympathetic and even imaginative in her religious ideas (especially about the 7 days of creation) because I feared a condescending piece when it started (the references to the wedding are kind of snickering and the constant reference throughout to the cartoon characters on her drinking glasses seem kind of Coen Brothers like in their chuckling at the unsophisticated in the sticks) but she develops depth an dignity. Altogether, I’d call this a promising start but after Silver and Millhauser’s double whammy I’m a bit underwhelmed.

  12. Betsy says:

    Hi Ken, Aaron and Carlos – So nice to hear from all of you. I echo Trevor’s remark about getting caught in the holiday current. Ken, I note your remarking that MawMaw “develops a depth of dignity”. I really like that wording. Carlos, I enjoyed your point about Pierce’s “discipline”, how he indicates the complexity of the situation but focuses on the relationships. And Aaron, that idea that MawMaw is only now realizing she is alone seems important to the story. I like it that you point that out. What I wonder is whether life is kind of like that…it’s only when unusual things happen that we see the oddness of how we are choosing to live. It’s a nice tribute to Pierce’s storytelling that we have all taken time with this story.

  13. madwomanintheattic says:

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned Flannery O’Connor, since this story is clearly in her territory – except that it’s neither so funny nor so substantial as her work. Although it deals (in part) with the relationship between a God-fearing mother and a big-city son (ok, and a wooly mammoth that has very little bearing on anything; it could have been a kangaroo), it seems to me superficial compared to, say, Everything That Rises Must Converge. MawMaw is a lovely person; Tom is a craven fool. I think the NYer was reaching on this one for a story that fit that issue’s theme of World Changers: it echoes the article on re-wilding in Europe.

  14. Trevor says:

    Hmmm, I didn’t think of Flannery O’Connor as I read this story, and she is one of my favorites. What was it that made you think of her? The voice of the elderly, God-fearing mother (which O’Connor does particularly well time and time again)? Other than the touch of religion, I cannot connect “Shirley Temple Three” thematically with O’Connor’s work, at least not the central themes of her work. Though I do agree — when up against O’Connor this doesn’t come off that well — I think it comes off quite well on its own terms.

  15. Saffta says:

    Our New Yorker discussion group really felt that this story was, for the most part, a dream sequence. From the time MawMaw takes the sleeping pills until the last sentence when Tommy arrives home. In her dream she works out feelings about religion, her devotion to a son who is obviously not as devoted to her, and her love of animals.The kindness she shows to ST3 is way over the top and more like what one would show to a beloved pet. Nine of us discussed this story for 90 minutes and we all agreed Pierce is a gifted story teller. He conveyed this woman’s deeply held convictions without telling us directly but rather by her use of faux curses and grape juice toasts. We look forward to future works. Also, there was an interesting article in this issue on development of a pre historic ecosystem in the Netherlands that tied in well with the fiction.

  16. Betsy says:

    Hi Saffta, I am so glad to hear all nine of you concurred with us! Thanks very much for your interesting discussion regarding the way in which the story works as a dream sequence. We, too, look forward to more Thomas Pierce.

  17. Jon says:

    [I let my New Yorker subscription lapse and am catching up on old freely available stories.]

    I loved this story and if TNY would publish more like this, I would keep subscribing. To me, the unique achievement was a central character (MawMaw) who gains in insight over the course of the story, but at a very basic level that’s far different from what we normally think of as constituting a revelation.

    Mawmaw is a good-hearted woman, who, for whatever reasons (cultural norms?, lack of intelligence? pliant nature?) has lived her life in an extremely self-effacing way, with a focus on duty and acceptance. I take the ending as indicating some stirring within Mawmaw that she matters too–she needn’t “take” whatever son gives. Perhaps getting in touch with her isolation and loneliness actually has given her agency.

    On a meta note, I thought this story had real soul, which so many contemporary stories in TNY lack. (An example is Saunders–I fully agree with Trevor that much of his work comes off as gimmicky with social criticism you’ve heard 7 times already on liberal blogs.) I’m reading “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” which I also feel hearkens back to non-fiction from TNY’s heyday. The current magazine feels more like the Western activists mocked in “Behind the Beautiful Forevers”– easily taken in by a corrupt slumlord mouthing simplistic feminist slogans they want to hear.

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