Strong fiction does not have an expiration date. You can leave it on a shelf for centuries, but it will never lose its potency or the sense of joy it instills in new readers. The 2012 thematic issue from Iron Horse Literary Review celebrates the strong fiction of American author Nathaniel Hawthorne by showcasing three of his most popular stories: “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “Young Goodman Brown,” and “The Gentle Boy.” The issue celebrates his fiction, but it also reexamines his work through the eyes of three prominent women authors. There is a heavy dose of irony here because Hawthorne dismissed women writers of his time as “scribblers” of market fiction. The result is a terrific issue juxtaposition of Hawthorne’s voice and voices of contemporary women writers.
“The Minister’s Black Veil” is about a holy man who hides his face behind a black veil. No one knows why he wears the veil. This mystery fuels speculation in his small village as many suspect he hides from a terrible sin. Hooper’s wife asks him to remove the veil, but he refuses and the two go their separate ways. The story ends on Hooper’s death bed, where he damns those around him, and the veil becomes a reflection of human cruelty.
Gina Ochsner responds to Hawthorne’s story with “Look,” a tale that examines the universal power of love. Ochsner’s story moves the setting to the cold Alaskan wilderness of the late 1880s. She changes the point of view to Hooper’s wife, a half-English and half-Yupik woman whose spirituality is planted in both her native tribe and Christianity: “Though to cling to the cross, she was learning, was to lay hold of splinters.” She teaches the beliefs of her people to her new husband, a young minister from the south: “God is water, but his highest form is light, which is his glory. Which is why they had to exercise such care with their gaze.” She advises her husband to never look at the sun without the snow goggles her people make from caribou antlers, but he ignores her and becomes snow blind. The permanent damage to his eyes shakes his faith. He urges his wife to leave him and search for a better life in the south, but she refuses to give up on him: “The darkness within and without, she said. We will look at it together. We will look, she said, lifting the veil. We will look and will not avert our gaze.”
“Young Goodman Brown” is Hawthorne’s classic tale of a religious man meeting the Devil. Brown’s wife, aptly named “Faith,” urges him not to go on his journey into the forest, but he ignores her and goes on his way. As his journey progresses, he is shocked to discover that his neighbors and close friends are in league with Satan and the “devilish Indians.” He stumbles into the hellish scene of a satanic ritual and loses his “faith” to the dark side of human nature.
Toni Jensen’s story, “Following Mr. Brown,” changes perspective and asks why the “devilish Indians” follow Goodman Brown. The setting changes to the future, where decades of fracking have destroyed the forest around Salem and left it a barren desert where haboobs, or intense desert storms, have become common. The descendants of the native tribes follow Mr. Brown as he meets with the Devil: “It was our job to follow Mr. Brown, to make sure he made no more deals, no more trouble. It had been our fathers’ jobs and some of our mothers’, too, and their parents’ before them.” There is a little tongue-in-cheek humor as the natives try to stay inconspicuous:
We flattened ourselves behind fences; we studied our tourist maps, and the moment passed like so many had before. We were growing tired of the Browns and their careful displays of all things newlywed—their chaste kisses and handholding, their box store furniture, their new towels with monograms slanted and looped in tasteful hues of pink and gold.
The heart of this tale is an environmental one. The natives care more about the destructive process of fracking more than the dilemma of Mr. Brown’s soul: “Turn on a faucet. Light a match. Watch it burn. Who doesn’t love a party trick?” Despite their intentions to keep Mr. Brown from causing any more trouble, they are thwarted by an intense haboob and their own uncertainty. The cycle continues as another Brown loses his faith.
“The Gentle Boy” is a story about religious intolerance and injustice. A Quaker man is put to death and buried in a nameless grave with other executed Quakers. His wife is sentenced to die in the wilderness while their son is left to mourn over the mass grave. A Puritan man takes pity on the child and brings him into his home and raises him like his own son. The rest of the Puritan community does not like this and ostracizes them from the community.
Edith Pearlman performs a gender swap on Hawthorne’s story in “The Gentle Girl.” The setting is moved to a private all-girls school in post-World War II America. The main character, Barbara Braude, is a young Jewish girl studying alongside mainly Quaker and Catholic girls. She is a good student, but nurtures a rebellious spirit:
She was singing hymns and repeating phrases that she disbelieved—Jesus Christ was not her Lord. She pretended respect for the school’s motto—Love, Loyalty, Humility—whereas her own clan’s motto, understood though unspoken, might have been Love, Limited Loyalty, and Getting Ahead.
Hypocrisy and scorn against Jews run rampant throughout Braude’s school. As her body matures into womanhood, so does her mind. She begins to recognize the injustices performed by those in power and condemns the school in a stunning outburst during class. Yet no one takes her condemnation seriously: “they didn’t give a damn for anything except good-enough grades and field hockey scores.”
If you enjoy the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and love to see strong women writers flex their literarymuscles, then you definitely want to check this issue out. It may inspire you to become a “scribbler” as well.