The Mulberry Tree by Kara McKeever from Periphery 47 caught my attention for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was a delightfully fresh take on the tale of growing up. As an undergraduate literary journal, many of the stories we receive reflect that transitional time. The balance we often grapple with is showcasing these stories because of their universality, and keeping them from being stale. The Mulberry Tree avoids that conundrum all together by focusing not on a single character, but an entire family, and how the shifting tides of memory and tradition crash against changing times. If that nostalgia for a place that has changed from one’s childhood isn’t universal, I don’t know what is.
Secondly, and most infuriating, the story doesn’t have an ending. After exactly 2100 words, the story stops midstream claiming the rest can be found online. Our website has undergone several changes since the nine years ago that 47 was printed and unfortunately the original ending of the story, is lost. I am heartbroken over this. The Mulberry Tree breaths life into that three-story farmhouse draped with cats, and my heart aches for the loss of Mrs. Mulberry just as Oscar and Kate and Elliot mourn the rotting symbol of their childhood. So the week of the August fourth, (Next week the blog will be taking a break) I will unveil my own ending to The Mulberry Tree. In the time before then, I would love to hear what you all think was going to happen, or if you are feeling ambitious you could write your own endings as well. All I want to know is: what will happen to Mrs. Mulberry?!
In the meantime, I want talk about how The Mulberry Tree uses navel gazing purposefully. Navel gazing is defined by Merriam-Webster as “Useless or excessive self-contemplation”. In popular culture it is often used to describe someone who is obsessed with themselves, and refused to talk about anything else. In writing, it is a term for large breaks in the action for the narrator to ponder something or explain their feelings. Navel gazing is generally criticized for breaking the pacing of a scene, and jarring readers at both ends of the break in a story. If a reader can understand a scene, and how a character feels in that scene without internal comment, there shouldn’t be any need for the author to further describe how the character feels at great length. Of course there are exceptions to this, and The Mulberry Tree is one of them. Take a look at this passage:
“Mom,” said Kate, carefully stacking too many cups in the dish drainer.
“What? Oh, I wish you kids would stop talking about this tree.” In the kitchen’s light Kate thought her mother looked almost haggard, “You shouldn’t have named it.”
Kate turned her back to the window. She wasn’t sure whether she or Oscar had named the tree. For as long as she could remember they had called it Mrs. Mulberry. She remembered using Mrs. Mulberry as a character in make-believe games, remembering standing with her forehead pressed to the bark and her hands cupped around her eyes, being “it” for hide-and-seek, remembering building snow forts around Mrs. Mulberry’s wide trunk. Sometimes she had perched on Mrs. Mulberry’s lowest branch and waved to her grandmother working in the kitchen. Sometimes her grandmother had brought out an old blanket and let them have picnics—crackers and grapes, sugar cookies and orange soda—under the tree. She remembered being proud when she could climb as high as Oscar into Mrs. Mulberry’s open embrace.
Kate began to dry the dishes in the drainer with a towel, for lack of anything better to do in the hushed house.
The scene of Kate washing dishes and attempting to talk with her mother is bisected with the block of text describing some of Kate’s earliest memories with Mrs. Mulberry. Through Kate’s memories we can see what is at stake if the tree is cut down, the audience understands what it means to her, and her inability to let go of it. The importance of the flashback is clear, but why does it have to come in the middle of the scene? What makes that choice significant within the story?
Kate is fighting to keep her childhood alive in a changing world. The quick breaks to memories showcases how torn Kate is about letting go of her childhood. She wants to keep building snow forts around Mrs. Mulberry’s trunk, and keep having picnics beneath her bows. But time keeps moving on. The reality of her situation sits juxtaposed to those memories, fighting with them. Breaking scenes with elongated memories makes the audience sit somewhere in the middle of those two images. They are seeing Kate wave to her grandmother from Mrs. Mulberry’s branches while also knowing that Kate is actually washing dishes and the grandmother is in a bed dying. Breaking up these scenes puts the reader in the same liminal position that Kate finds herself.
Characters that navel-gaze seem out of the action, unable to deal with what is outside of their own heads. Authors can accidentally create characters that seem unable to interact with other characters because they are bogged down with emotions and observations. Navel gazing, however, makes sense within The Mulberry Tree because the farmhouse is an area laded with memories that are constantly being reminisced. Every location from the porches to the inner rooms, to the lawn all hold deep meaning for the children. That meaning comes out because of how often the children stop and remember good times with Mrs. Mulberry. In this case, McKeever used the breaks within her story to underscore how important these memories are, and how little control the children have, both about their own nostalgia, but their current surroundings.
Like many aspects of writing, the medium allows for an incredible amount of variance on how to construct even a single sentence. There are many ways to do this well, and many, many ways to do this poorly. Doing it purposefully, however, is what separates stories like The Mulberry Tree from others. Knowing why a single sentence was structured, or how a specific clause is used, can be an important question to ask about one’s writing. The Mulberry Tree shows us that.