Page:O Henry Prize Stories of 1924.djvu/18

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years has exemplified more touchingly, more humorously, the gnawing of mental hunger and the satisfying of that hunger. The Bible, the Book of Martyrs, and the Almanac, Tilly and Betsey knew by heart. Some extraordinary motive must lead to their sin of reading a worldly book. What wonder that after the fifty-eighth quilt Tilly's sight was endangered—and her mind? Nothing less tragic would have impelled Betsey to the sin, which later she had to confess. Easily, simply, the author permits Betsey's concern over her sin to give away the part of the story she has read, with the result that the whole congregation hangs in suspense over the fate of "The Courier of the K-zar" and treks to the Shindledecker cottage. You smile when Betsey complacently announces she will begin once again in the beginning—a smile that forges past a lump in your throat. The simplicity of these Mennonite folk brings before you the genre paintings of Teniers and Van Eyck. At the same time you stand convicted, "And yet it is part of America."

Condensed novel, rather than short story, "Margaret Blake" achieves its effect within short-story limits. With the judges, every reader will approve its freshness and spontaneity. On a subject too frequently associated with the unwholesome and salacious, its sanity and wholesomeness alone raise it above the ordinary. Its clever reversal of the usual situation is so cunningly managed as to hide in a seemingly natural series of events all traces of cleverness. Margaret Blake's strength lay in her lack of self-consciousness. She had no education, but "was incapable of envy, malice, or revenge. . . . She practised something akin to polyandry in a strictly orthodox, puritanical community for more than a decade, named three illegitimate sons after their fathers, wrecked all three of the fathers, flourished as probably no green bay tree ever dreamed of flourishing, and finally in her mature years chased those who wanted to tell the truth about her to evasion, silence, or actual falsehood." At last, she gave her life in the attempt to save that of another, and thereby made the community safe in public confession of that love all had felt for her and which had tortured them in the years when they felt compelled to hate her.

"What a masterpiece of economy!" exclaimed one judge. "Original, simple, direct," said another. A beautiful piece of