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The Selection Stories

Mathilde had tied one of her pink ribbons in Odette's pale hair. The beaming smile her friend had given her in return had made her feel wonderful about herself. At last the teacher stopped on a long road that stretched towards the coast. It was bordered on each side by tall willowy trees and a shallow ditch. She instructed the children to find on the grassy verges as many different plants as possible, which they would identify and classify back at school. She added very seriously that they should not and she stressed the "not" stray away from the cover of the trees. It was a question of life and death, she said.

They all went off in pairs. Little dresses and short trousers, frolicking, laughing and gathering sunny dandelions and delicate daisies. Odette, as usual, was carrying the box for samples, while Mathilde was running around. Suddenly, the games stopped. From the blue horizon a sound, a roar, disturbed the peace. Get down NOW! Always obedient, Odette had remained with the group. Mathilde, on the other hand, had gone off further down the road, behind the line of trees and the ditch, and she was out of reach: rules and regulations didn't apply to her; she knew better.

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Ecstatic and inebriated by the sights and smells of the new season, she didn't hear the distant rumbling nor the teacher's urgent cry. Odette dropped the sample box, spilling its content on the road, and ran to find her friend. She was calling frantically and her face looked very scared.

Seeing her in the distance, bright red and waving her cardigan frenetically above her head, Mathilde laughed. But when Odette reached her, she heard the groan of the engine and, at last, understood. Too late Huge, dark and lethal. Death from the sky. The plane dived abruptly. It was German.

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Paralysed with fear, the girls stood in the open. The gigantic bird was upon them; its cold shadow had eclipsed the sun. Odette pushed Mathilde into the ditch. The explosions of the gunshots sounded like fireworks, magical and terrifying, and the noise from the engine was deafening. The impacts on the dry grass were like hail, only louder, heavier. Then everything went dark: the sounds and images stopped.

When Mathilde recovered her senses, the teacher was sobbing noisily, holding her to her bosom. There was blood on her new school tunic; what would Maman say? Of Odette, she saw only a pink ribbon caught in a bush on the edge of the ditch. Her little friend was dead. The funeral was terribly sad. Death then, all dark and resigned, was even more dismal than it is now. The hearse, dragged along the uneven road by two heavy farm horses dressed in black, was followed by a procession of villagers. Mathilde, as Odette's best friend, had been given the privilege of holding one of the two black ribbons at the back of the cart.

In the cemetery it started raining.

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The very small coffin soon disappeared into the ground. Fistfuls of earth were thrown on it: "Earth to Earth Her father took her hand and led her away from the tomb to join a line of neighbours and friends, each waiting their turn to offer the bereaved family their "sincere condolences". The sounds were muffled; whispers and smothered weeping.

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The funeral expenses had been paid by Mathilde's parents, and the poor grief-stricken cobbler thanked them warmly, his unshaved face all shadowed as if stained with shoe polish and tears. It was nobody's fault but the Boches'. Sad, sad, casualty of war. Mathilde was still playing with the ribbons of her dress. The party in the dining room was going on.

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None of the guests could have imagined her train of thoughts Like a bombshell, the sentence exploded in the civilised and well-fed blandness of the conversation. Who had spoken it? The voice had sounded so desperate and tense — an absolute social blunder. It seemed to have come from just behind her. She turned.

No one. For a minute, the room went quiet, and they all stared at her. She felt her tranquil facade was no longer intact. What were they all gazing at so intently? She tried to pull herself together and smile, her habitual social screen, but only managed a grimace. There was blood on her school tunic She had seen only a pink ribbon floating in the light wind It was the Boches' fault There was blood Soon the conversation around her had resumed its swing, her lapse of sanity forgotten. Superficiality has no memory. But she was in turmoil, feeling oppressed as if there was a weight on her chest.

She couldn't breathe so well. Shadows on the Rock , with its subtly experimental form and its domestic focus, resembles The Country of the Pointed Firs in many telling ways. She too places at the physical center of her book the tale of a hermetic woman who never appears directly in the action: the recluse nun, Jeanne Le Ber. The tale of Jeanne, her favorite, is the only account of a woman in this section. Under her "gay dresses. Eventually, despite her family's wished, her ample dowry financed a chapel for the Sisters of the Congregation of the Blessed Virgin.

Behind the altar she had a three-level cell constructed for herself "from which she would never come forth alive" There she lives, a young woman still-seeing only her confessor, eating coarse food, spurning much of the comfort that domestic life can offer, even in Quebec and even to a nun the other nuns who figure in this novel lead comfortable, social lives. Alone in her workroom, Jeanne spins, knits, and works at artful ecclesiastical embroidery.

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Cather's character is more clearly an exemplar of conscious choice: Joanna is rejected by a man, whereas it is Jeanne herself who rejects her father's wishes and the men who vie for her hand. But the similarities are more numerous and compelling. Both characters have wills so powerful that they can reshape the patterns their respective societies offer women. They turn their backs on conventional sexual and domestic life, yet both of them project passion, and many of their occupations—Joanna's weaving, Jeanne's embroidery—are quintessentially domestic.

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Their meticulously ordered housekeeping is raised to a state of ardent awareness that becomes highly conscious art. As a girl, Jeanne often knelt at her window, gazing at the spark of the perpetually burning lamp her father and uncle had placed on the altar of the parish church. Instead of conventionally tending the male-given lamp, in patient housewifery, Jeanne chose instead to become that symbolic object. Thus she claimed for herself immortality and meaning, while forfeiting the knowable particulars of a shared, finite domestic life. Even the sound of her voice was subsumed into mystery; Euclide Auclair says, "We cannot know what her voice is like now" By their withdrawals, Joanna and Jeanne paradoxically give themselves to the very communities they left; they become their own mysterious legends, which nourish and sustain the villagers who perpetuate them.

Jewett underlines this fact by the way Joanna's history emerges in her narrative: through the interchange of question, report, and invention, interspersed with reflection. Jeanne's story emerges in a fashion equally complex—Blinker brings the latest "news from Montreal" of two angels who mend Jeanne's spinning wheel.