Winter 2024 • Vol. XLVI No. 1 Why We Chose ItJanuary 30, 2024 |

Why We Chose It: “Where Are the Littles?” by Kathlene Postma

“Where Are the Littles?” by Kathlene Postma appears in the Winter 2024 issue of The Kenyon Review.

What do we imagine when we imagine the end of the world? What desires hide within that terrifying idea? In Kathlene Postma’s story “Where Are the Littles?,” the tornado that has just destroyed a midwestern town feels a bit like the tempest that Prospero summons in Shakespeare’s final play. The storm is both an ending and a beginning: it’s over before the story really begins, but it also expresses a barely concealed desire in the story’s narrator. And like Prospero, Postma’s narrator has some tricks up her sleeve.

She first appears as an almost secondary figure to the main story: the stunned mother desperately trying to salvage her family’s belongings from their shattered home while her two children clamber through the ruins. The tornado has torn off one whole wall of the house; beyond lies the half-flattened forest. Her son surveys the destruction with a young boy’s perverse sense of glee, but her daughter can only think of the family of dolls that has lived in the three-story dollhouse in her bedroom. Smashed during the storm, the dollhouse is actually an architectural replica built by her father as he planned the unfinished restoration of the Victorian that now lies in ruins around them. He’s long gone by the time the tornado arrives, but he has consoled his daughter, twelve-year-old Marjorie, by sending her—one by one—this perfect family of tiny dolls.

But where have they gone? Like any mother, the narrator is tempted to tell her daughter comforting lies, but what’s the point when both her marriage and the house lie in ruins? There’s something sadistic about the way she shatters her daughter’s illusions:

As we kneel in the mess of broken glass, I tell Marjorie what I’m thinking, what she can’t stand to hear. The father doll and Agnes ran off together. The storm was their perfect cover.

“The mother doll, Carrie, and the little brother Robert didn’t survive. The father has another family already,” I tell her.

“You are such a liar,” Marjorie says. “You’ll say anything to make people feel sorry for you. Papa told me.”

Not this narrator. She expects no sympathy from us. She’s her own whirling storm, and she has run out of patience with Marjorie’s grief. If she could have torn the wall off the house herself, she would have done it long ago. But she’s also a mother, and she wants her daughter to be something more than the doll her father has made her.

The dark magic in this story lies in its surprising shifts in tone and point of view. The narrator tells us one story, tells her daughter another, and simply hangs up on her husband’s anxious phone calls once cell service returns. But while she acknowledges that this is really Marjorie’s story, she lets us know that she’s the one who’ll give it to us straight:

Marjorie has the vocabulary of a college graduate. She’s made it through every Charles Dickens novel. She is perfectly capable of telling you her own story, except her choking sobs, constant state of melodrama, and tendency toward secrecy would make reading it a total waste of your time.

Be glad I’ve taken over the telling.

In fact, the narrator finds her daughter insufferable, and Marjorie, like any twelve-year-old girl, blames her mother for everything. But what the mother can see, and the daughter is too caught up in her private tragedy to perceive, is the freedom to be found in these ruins.

The dollhouse has collapsed in a snarl of torn wallpaper and loosed shingles. Personally, I find the chaos rather beautiful and full of potential. I could not have done a better job myself, sledgehammer in hand.

For Marjorie, it feels like the end of the world, but it’s worth remembering that the word apocalypse means, at its root, an uncovering, a revelation. Among the ruins, we find a brave new world where lives that were once unthinkable can be imagined. All that’s required of us is to let the wind carry it all away. The dollhouse is the dream that Marjorie’s father has left behind, but the story of its destruction is her mother’s gift. In the final section, the narrator hands over the story to her daughter, and its conclusion is brutal. It’s an act of both love and cruelty to send a child out into a shattered world, but when we destroy the only world they know, we leave them the ruins as our gift. Only there can they outgrow the dollhouses we’ve constructed for them and the comforting fictions on which they’re built.

Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky is the associate editor of The Kenyon Review.

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