“The Hanging of the Schoolmarm”
by Robert Coover
from the November 28, 2016 issue of The New Yorker
As far as I’m concerned, The New Yorker can keep on publishing these tiny stories from Robert Coover. “The Invasion of the Martians,” published just a couple of months ago, is one of my favorite New Yorker stories of the year, and his strange takes on old fairy tales — “The Crabapple Tree” and “The Frog Prince,” for example — won me over when I initially a Coover skeptic.
And now we get one entitled “The Hanging of the Schoolmarm.” The title alone has me interested, and then we get to this paragraph:
The men of the town find the schoolmarm difficult but are awed by her refined and lofty character, and generally do what she tells them to do. The sheriff likes to say that she’s as pure as the spotless lily of the lake, though they have no lake, and there are no lilies in it. No damn lilies. The men cuss a lot — in fact, all the time — but never around the schoolmarm. Cussing doesn’t go together with the schoolmarm. It’s like salting your coffee, to put it politely.
This follows the opening two paragraphs, in which the schoolmarm shoots someone for cussing: “Sorry, but I simply cannot allow . . .” I think we might have another satire on our hands! The story also ventures into some philosophy, and I cannot quite wrap my head around all it’s trying to do. I just know that I enjoyed going through it, because Coover constantly keeps me thinking while also injecting bits of humor:
When the sheriff leads the schoolmarm up onto the gallows, he says, “I know you’re sad about losing your life, ma’am, but you gotta understand — out here, life don’t mean nothing. What only matters is rocks. Rocks and the un-effable, pardon the French.”
“Your French loses something in the translation,” the schoolmarm says, “but I suppose when you speak of the ineffable you are speaking of me.”
“Yes’m,” the sheriff says, “Sure am.”
The story takes only a few minutes to read, so I am excited to see what the rest of you have to say about it. I’ll contribute more to the comments below, so feel free to let us know how you felt about the story, Coover in general, etc.