In the Garden of North American Martyrs

This month I participated in the The Faith and Fiction Round Table, organized by My Friend Amy, in a discussion of Tobias Wolff’s collection of short stories, In the Garden of North American Martyrs. We discussed the book by e-mail over the course of a week, and Amy has split up the conversation for the different participants to post on their blogs. Below is my part of the discussion. Be sure to check out the other links at the end of the post for the rest of the conversation.

Amy: I’m interested in what all of you think about choosing In the Garden of the North American Martyrs as the title for the collection. Do you think it works as a title to pull together this best of collection, and do you find that story to center or anchor the other stories or do you think it’s just the most appealing title from a marketing angle?

Pete: I think it’s a very fitting title for the collection. Most of the stories deal with someone struggling against something, often themselves, and losing.

Simon: In fact, the title story ‘In the Garden of the North American Martyrs’ was one of the ones which left me cold – I enjoyed the build up, but the climax where Mary went a bit crazy and macabre felt forced and didn’t work for me. I couldn’t really work out why he chose this as the title story, or even why the title was chosen for that particular story.

How did people think the collection worked *as* a collection? Was there a style or tone or theme that carried across?

Hannah: Amy, I think the “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs” fits as a title for the collection as well as it fits the story itself. It’s certainly an intriguing title, though, from a marketing perspective. 🙂

Yesterday I would have said I didn’t think there was anything in particular that held these stories together. But today, I’m feeling that they do have something in common, some feeling. I can’t quite put words to it yet, exactly, but I feel the book’s title does justice to that commonality.

I read Wolff’s use of the word “martyrs” as sarcastic, almost sardonic. I think it references how we as individuals, here in North America, can feel like martyrs at times ó that everything is being heaped on us, that wrong constantly befalls us, that we’re being persecuted but not for any wrong we’ve done. And maybe he’s pointing out that when it comes to martyrdom, we’ve got nothing, this isn’t it. Put on paper (or screen) like that, it sounds pretty dumb. But I know I’m guilty of feeling like that sometimes. So maybe the reminder is a needed one: It may feel like you’re having a bad day, but the weight of the world isn’t actually on your shoulders. Everyone and everything is not actually against you.

I can agree, Simon, that “Worldly Goods” had a certain pleasing rhythm. I think part of why I liked “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs” more, though, is that it had a plot. Rather than a consistent cadence running throughout the story, InGotNAM actually has a crescendo, an arc. And the climax didn’t feel forced to me, for whatever reason.

Kate: On the title, I took the North American martyrs to be the two Jesuit priests captured by the Iroquois that Mary talks about during her lecture.

Stephen: I do think “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs” is a good and fitting title for the collection. In a way, most of these stories read like expositions on the book of Ecclesiastes – the futility of life, or at least the constant struggle to live a good life and do what is right. So I love how this story ends with Mary’s paraphrase of Micah 6:8.

He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the LORD require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?

Amy: I also took the meaning of martyrs to be the Jesuit priests and Mary herself in a way, because she “martyred” herself by never really speaking her mind and true thoughts after watching a colleague get fired. So in the very garden where the Jesuit priests had been martyred, she called forth her true self, she spoke her mind, because she had nothing left to lose. As a collection I do think the stories worked well together. Stephen–I like what you say about the stories reading like expositions on Ecclesiastes.

The Quirky Redhead
My Friend Amy
Strange Culture
The Fiddler’s Gun
Rebelling Against Indifference

6 thoughts on “In the Garden of North American Martyrs”

  1. Glad to have participated in the discussion with you.

    I was just thinking about your Ecclesiastes comment again and it hit me. I think that is why I struggled so much with this collection of stories. Ecc. 3 talks about a season for everything. While the short stories in the book do probably show a realistic slice of life, it isn’t the complete story. That is what I kept looking for – balance. Couldn’t explain that very well until now.

  2. I guess I never jumped in on this part of the conversation. It’s really a great story, one of my favorite’s in the collection. As a title to collection, I agree w/ Hannah suggesting this is a great title (something like “Poachers”, or “Face to Face” would sound far more generic if they have taken any of the other titles).

  3. I Haven’t read the book but “The North American Martyrs is a term used to refer to eight Jesuit priests killed by the Iriquois in upstate New York and Canada

  4. In the story the book takes the title from, RAnn, the protagonist gives an off-the-cuff lecture where she starts to tell that story. I didn’t realize it was an actual story. Thanks for cluing us in. This is what makes group book discussions so valuable.

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