Some stories are easier to recommend than others. High concept ones are the best, especially if the high concept is revealed at the outset. I can simply say, “It’s about a duck who becomes an astronaut,” and you’ll get an impression of whether the story interests you or not. More difficult are those where there’s nothing special about the premise, the characters, or any facet I can articulate without quoting large chunks; stories where the strength of the storytelling craft is the main appeal.
Consider today’s story. Chayute is a frontier town gradually approaching the cusp of modernity, and the sheriff can see that everything will change within another generation. One of its livelihoods is as a rest-stop for cattle drives: “A cattle drive meant a lot to the mercantile and the saloon and a couple other kinds of places, though a lot of the rest would keep their doors open only out of a sort of defiance. And given their druthers,* half the houses in Chayute would like to have boarded up their shutters or gophered clear underground.”
When the story opens the drivers have just hit the town and are starting to paint it a good-natured red. But the youngest of them, a boy of sixteen on his first cattle drive, has fallen in love with one of the locals, and the locals are scared she’s fallen for him too. They turn to the sheriff to sort it all out, but the sheriff – an ex-cattle driver himself – sympathises with both parties too much for his decision to be easy.
As you can see, there’s nothing revolutionary about this piece. Every component of this story is familiar, yet every piece interlocks with the others precisely. While the language is not exquisite, it is clear and tells the story in a minimum of words without being spare. Ultimately, it’s a well-told tale.
*(I don’t know about you, but I’d never come across the word ‘druthers’ before. Turns out it’s a blended contraction of “would rather,” and the singular ‘druther’ is almost never used.)
The Sheriff of Chayute by Theodore Sturgeon
Availability: print only
Word count: 6,000
First published: Sturgeon’s West, collection, 1973, Doubleday
Where else to find it: Case and the Dreamer, Volume XII: The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon, collection, 2010, North Atlantic Books