Tuesday, June 28, 2016

LOST SISTER BY DOROTHY M. JOHNSON--A WESTERN SHORT STORY TREASURE by CHERYL PIERSON


I know we’ve talked before about Dorothy M. Johnson, the iconic western short story writer who penned such classics as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Hanging Tree, and A Man Called Horse; but today, I wanted to tell you about another short story of hers that I read a few days ago. Quite possibly, the best short story--in any genre—that I’ve ever read.

You may never have heard of it. It wasn’t made into a movie, because it too closely mirrored the true life of a real person, Cynthia Ann Parker, mother of Quanah Parker. The story is called Lost Sister.


I’d heard this story mentioned before by a couple of friends, and thought, “I need to read that—I’ve never read much of Mrs. Johnson’s work but the movies have all been good.” I know. I hate it when people say that, too. Anyhow, I bought a collection from Amazon that contained the three stories I mentioned in the first paragraph and Lost Sister as the fourth. Of course, I had to read The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, since that’s tied for my all-time favorite western movie, along with Shane. I was so disappointed. The characters in the short story were not the same as my beloved Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne! Hmmm. Well, even though I was disappointed, I decided to give Lost Sister a shot.

It more than made up for my lukewarm feelings for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Lost Sister is the story of a woman who has been kidnapped as a young child by “the hostiles”. She has an older sister, who remembers her well from childhood, and loves her with the devotion that most older sisters have for a younger sister. Through the forty years she has been gone, the oldest sister, Mary, has cherished memories of her younger sibling.

There are three younger sisters, as well, who have no recollection of the Lost Sister, Bessie. The older sister doesn’t live with them, but in a different town a thousand miles away. The three sisters are notified that their sister, Bessie, has been “rescued” and is being brought back to them. The story is told from the eyes of a nine-year-old boy, whose mother lives with the sisters. She is the widow of their brother, who was killed by the Indians. The boy has dreams of growing up and avenging his father’s death, but something changes once his Aunt Bessie comes back to live with them.

Up until Bessie is returned to them, they have gotten much attention from the neighbors, and have been pitied as being the family who had a sister stolen by the savages so many years ago. Once Bessie is returned, their standing in the community takes a subtle twist. The other sisters don’t know how to handle Bessie’s homecoming. They make plans to go into her room and “visit” with her every day. One of them decides to read to Bessie from the Bible for thirty minutes each day. The others come up with similar plans, none of which include trying to understand Bessie’s feelings at being ripped away from her Indian family.

The oldest sister, Mary, comes to visit. What’s different? Mary loves Bessie, and accepts her; and Bessie loves her—they both remember their childhood time together. The language of love overcomes the barriers of the spoken language that neither of them can understand, for Bessie has forgotten English, and Mary doesn’t know Bessie’s Indian dialect. But Bessie has a picture of her son, and Mary admires it, and by the time Mary is to go home, she has made arrangements for Bessie to come live with her—a huge relief to the other pious sisters who had made such sympathetic noises about her being reunited with them in the beginning.

In a fateful twist, Bessie makes her own decision about what she will do, taking her own life back, and helping her son avoid capture. This is one story you will not forget. Once you read it, it will stay with you and you’ll find yourself thinking about it again and again. It doesn’t fit the mold of a romance story, except for the fact that I think of Bessie being in love with her husband, having children with him, and then being “rescued” and forced to live in a society she had no ties with any longer…except one—the love and understanding of her older sister, Mary.

No specific Indian tribe is mentioned in the story, probably for a purpose. I think, one of the main reasons is to show us the cultural differences and how, in this case, the “civilized” world that Bessie had come from and been returned to was not as civilized as the “savages” who had kidnapped her. Also, as I say, Cynthia Ann Parker’s story, at the time this story was published, was not that old. There were still raw feelings and rough relations between whites and Indians. But by leaving the particular tribe out of the story, it provides a broader base for humanity to examine the motives for “rescue” and the outcome for all concerned, of a situation such as this in which it would have been better to have let Bessie (Cynthia Ann) remain “lost.”

I’ve posted the link below for the story as it was printed in Collier’s Weekly on March 30, 1956. It’s also available on Amazon in several collections.
http://www.unz.org/Pub/Colliers-1956mar30-00066

And speaking of short stories...PRAIRIE ROSE PUBLICATIONS has a new call for submissions for our Christmas anthology, A COWBOY UNDER THE MISTLETOE!We hope you'll consider submitting a holiday story!




Theme: A Christmas surprise
Length: 10,000 to 15,000 words
Deadline: September 15, 2016

What do we wish for in the hottest part of the summer? Christmas, of course! Now’s the time to do some daydreaming and writing about those snowy, cold days we long for in the heat of summer. At Prairie Rose Publications, we’re looking for stories about romance in the old west at that most magical time of the year—Christmas—for our upcoming anthology A Cowboy Under the Mistletoe.

Have you ever stood under the mistletoe and gotten an unexpected kiss? Or maybe you hoped for a kiss from a special someone, but it didn’t happen. Life is full of surprises, especially at Christmas. Our western romance anthology A Cowboy Under the Mistletoe will be composed of stories that have an element of surprise in them. Whether your heroine finds herself falling for the wrong man or your cowboy comes home to an unexpected event, it makes for a big change in their lives.

Could an unusual gift turn friendship into love? Or maybe a playful kiss under the mistletoe changes a couple’s lives forever.

At PRP, we’re always on the lookout for experienced authors as well as bright new stars. Got a sweet love story? A sensual one? Or maybe even a spicy tale of intrigue and love? (No erotica, please.) Whatever you decide to write about, as long as it includes Christmas, a surprise, and love in the old west, we’d love to take a look.

If you have questions, please e-mail us at prairierosepublications@yahoo.com.

Submissions should be e-mailed to prairierosepublications@yahoo.com or fabkat_edit@yahoo.com.

For details about our submissions process, visit the submissions page on our website.


10 comments:

  1. Well, shoot. I lost my brilliant comment! How did I do that?
    I can't write it all again, but remember I think this is a wonderful post and gives us another view of Cynthia's (Bessie) return home.
    I'll come back and open the link to the pdf to read the short story. I don't have time now.Thanks!

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    1. Darn it, Celia! I always look forward to your comments. This story was so good--so much better than The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The book is on my keeper shelf for LOST SISTER, not some of the others she was more famous for.

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  2. This story has been on my radar for some time. Stories such as this, where the author takes you on the journey of life and the decisions we make, are the best kind. Thank you for the reminder. I also thank you for letting me know about St. Agnes Stand. Doris

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    1. My pleasure! I loved St. Agnes' Stand sooooo much. This is a wonderful story, too. I hope you get a chance to read it, Doris.

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  3. As you mentioned, Cheryl, I love THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. I haven't heard about LOST SISTER before but I believe Cynthia Ann Parker's story is so sad.

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    1. Caroline, I was sooo looking forward to reading The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and so disappointed in it--that's one of the very rare instances I can think of when the movie was actually better than the book/story. But Lost Sister--what a masterpiece. So bittersweet, and such a study in human nature. Can't say enough good about that story!

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  4. I do remember the story after all this time. I like the perspective of the "rescued" sister who had lived her life in another culture for so long and formed bonds with her captures who became her fiends.
    The two Christmas anthologies look awesome. I'm deep into my 2 WIPs, but I'm thinking about a possible story from back in the beginning of Hazard, Wyoming. I haven't written a short story in a while. I'm certainly thinking about it.

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    1. Yes, Sarah, it was so sad. Cynthia didn't WANT to be rescued. She had a life she loved and a family she did not want to leave. This story, Lost Sister, has such a twist ending--one of the best ever, IMO.

      Oh, I hope you will write something for the anthology(ies)! But I know it's hard to stop what you're working on and start something else. Maybe??? LOL

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  5. Cheryl, what a great post. I must put this on my Kindle ad am looking forward to this. I love stories that tug at the heart and also show that we-the white Americans don't always know or do the best thing. I'm sure I'll be more than tearied eyed reading this but I know I can't pass this one up. Thanks so much for sharing this with us.

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    1. Bev, you won't regret reading this--and it's a short story, so it won't take you long at all. It's very different.

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