"Shirley Temple Three" by Thomas Pierce Originally published in the December 24 & 31, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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.