Short Story Reviews: Howard Waldrop’s “Mary Margaret Road-Grader” (1976), David J. Skal’s “Chains” (1971), and Tom Purdom’s “Courting Time” (1966)


Howard Waldrop (1946-2024), David J. Skal (1952-2024), and Tom Purdom (1936-2024) all passed away since the beginning of the year. As I’ve only read Howard Waldrop’s “God’s Hooks!” (1982), “My Sweet Lady Jo” (1974), and “The Ugly Chickens” (1980) and Tom Purdom’s “Toys” (1967), I impulsively thought I’d stich together a post featuring a tale by each.

Please note that I have not read enough to identify their best work and a negative review is not intended to be a statement about their entire oeuvre and impact on the genre. If you have any fond memories, recommendations for stories, or other tangents related to the three authors, let me know in the comments.

Terry Bisson (1942-2014) also passed away this year but did not publish any short fiction until the 90s. I’ll make sure to review one of his 80s novels—Wyrldmaker (1981) or Talking Man (1986)–this year instead. I’ve also procured novels by Purdom and Skal to feature later this year.

Now let’s get to the stories!

4.5/5 (Very Good)

Howard Waldrop’s “Mary Margaret Road-Grader” first appeared in Orbit 18, ed. Damon Knight (1976). If you have an Internet Archive account, you can read it online here.

Nominated for the 1977 Nebula Award for Best Short Story. Lost to Charles L. Grant’s “A Crowd of Shadows” (1976).

At some point in the future after the “Highway wars” (186), Native American groups within North-Eastern Texas are on the ascent. They raid the few white settlements, stealing cars, guns, and bulldozers. At the annual Sun Dance and Big Tractor Pull, the Fossil Creek people gather for masculine demonstrations of honor and strength. The Stealers, including our narrator Billy-Bob Chevrolet and his young friend Freddy-in-the-Hollow, come with strings of pilfered cars and other goods. Licenses plates serve as currency. There are car and foot races. Justice is dispensed. Love kindled. And dances throb on late into the night. The center of it all is the Big Tractor Pull. The winners on local circuits seek out the bigger stage. Simon Red Bulldozer arrives with his wives and sons. Bets are made: reputations are on the line.

But something seems different this year: even the young Freddy notices how “things are changing” (190). There are more horses than before, and less cars. Fashion shifts. The raids yield less and less. Alternative economic systems of barter and exchange emerge. It makes Billy-Bob’s “skin crawl” (19). You know, it’s always better in the past. Even if the future seems closer to the past before the past.

And then a wildcard appears on the horizon whose very presence threatens to tear the Fossil Creek people apart–Mary Margaret Road-Grader. She drives a bulldozer discovered in a strange museum from before the Highway Wars and claims to have defeated Alan Backhoe Shovel. And she wants to be the first woman to compete in the Fossil Creek people’s Big Tractor Pull. Billy-Bob is immediately drawn to her: “she had long black hair and a beautiful face […] She wore tight coveralls and had a .357 Magnum strapped to her hip” (193). The male council debates whether to let her enter. Billy-Bob breaks the stalemate with his challenge designed to shame the traditionalists into acquiescence: “We cannot be afraid of a woman! Or can some of us be?” (197). He puts his money on Mary Margaret and her machine. But violence looms after she defeats Elmo John Deere and pulls Simon Red Bulldozer to a stalemate.

Waldrop spins a bizarre and seductive admixture of American symbology that’s poetic and powerful in its simplicity and prose. Native American culture, and culture in general, takes on a malleable nature, molding around and reconfiguring the symbols and stories of the American past: Colt pistols, raids, the highway, the white conquest of the West. As with William Tenn’s fascinating “Eastward Ho!” (1958), Waldrop jumbles and decontextualizes the grand narrative of “heroic” Manifest Destiny. Waldrop and Tenn suggest we cannot escape reenacting similar historical patterns. And yes, it will be all be destroyed again. It’s unclear how we got to this point in the future. The past the reader “knows” cannot be known by the future denizens of our world. A perpetual state of historical estrangement reigns.

Highly recommended.

2.75/5 (Average)

David J. Skal’s “Chains” first appeared in Clarion, ed. Robin Scott Wilson (1971). I cannot find a digitized copy online. If you find of one, let me know.

“Chains” (1971), Skal’s first-published short story, operates within an extended historical analogy–a re-imagining of the era of Reconstruction after the US Civil War. In this future, the east and west of the United States engaged in a devastating conflict that destroyed large portions of the Midwest. Cleveland, near Skal’s own birthplace of Garfield Heights, Ohio, looms a gutted skyline over the “leftover, festering sink” of Lake Erie (122). Twenty years after the conflict, Freedman’s Bureau-esque officers journey into the liminal Midwest with “idealist” goals to further education and reintroduce medicine.

Roberts, one of these officers, heads into the zone on a mission to cure the sick and find Stevens, his predecessor who never returned from his mission. Roberts quickly discovers Stevens is dead and a tyrannical religious leader named Ward Healer Tragg erects himself as a new god in the post-apocalyptic wasteland. Tragg claims to want the return of medical science, as long as he remains on top. Roberts plays along, curing the sick while Tragg preaches hellfire. Tragg, who appears to be white, controls like a pet a black woman named Rose, who cares for the children of the Strongholders who reside, “holed up, in a crowded fortress-like settlement” (125). Roberts tries to follow the rule of missionary work, “never force yourself on people” (124), but his attempt to cure a sick child in Tragg’s absence hastens a final confrontation.

The historian in me adores teaching the Reconstruction era (1865-1877) to my students. I get excited with them as they read Freedman’s Bureau officer reports on new schools and break down the challenges facing the Republican Party, with its factions, during Andrew Johnson’s presidency. I find myself deeply moved by the first generation of black politicians, elected soon after the Reconstruction Acts of 1867, who attempted to fight for their communities in the face of violence and intimidation before disenfranchisement pushed them from office. Skal’s reimagined Reconstruction tale remains far too short and surface to push his analogies in more than a cursory direction. The bits are fine but there isn’t much polish. Ultimately, “Chains” retreads basic science vs. religion ground covered by so many.

I can’t recommend this one.

3.25/5 (Above Average)

Tom Purdom’s “Courting Time” first appeared in Galaxy Magazine, ed. Frederik Pohl (February 1966). You can read it online here.

“Courting Time” might be one of the earlier SF stories focused exclusively on a polyamorous relationship. While there are earlier references (I list a few I remember below) in science fiction, Purdom centers the entire narrative around a young musician, Verino Schell, and his courtship of a 7-member spousal group (3 men and 4 women). The story follows Verino’s realization that he isn’t just in love with Leeba Zest, but each and everyone in the unit: “Not Leeba! You! Your family! The Twenty-First Century!” (57). Purdom implies that it’s more platonic love between between same-sex members.

Purdom explores how a group family might function. First, everyone in the family votes must agree to add a new member. Verino realizes that while Leeba wants him, she will join in unity with the other family members, each of which she also needs. Each member of the family takes on different roles. Kelios and Margaret Zest act as the main mother and father of the group’s many children. Fileesa is a “careerwoman” — a “first-rate historian and socio-economic forecaster” (52). Terita appears to be a sex symbol idol or model of some sort. John is an artist. And Rafe takes the role of primary earner in his position as tourism director, representing Paris and Ibadan at the upcoming Worlds Fair. The family as a whole ranks among the 1% in the future–albeit, a future with far less poverty. This setup is not for those without disposable income!

There are some other nice touches throughout. Purdom suggests a twenty-first century characterized by multiculturalism–song, language, and dance–with the so-called “third world” metropolises, like Ibadan, Nigeria, rivaling Paris, France. I sense that Purdom takes seriously the mantra repeated by Verinos that “complex societies created complex people–and complex people had complex needs” (55). He does not seek to condemn or ridicule the personal, consensual, choices of others in this particular future. That said, the ending does not work. I would never accept someone into my life who attempted to kill me or someone I love.

Other SF discussions of polyamory that come to mind: Fritz Leiber’s “Nice Girl with Five Husbands” (1951); Robert Heinlein’s Strange in a Strange Land (1961); Edgar Pangborn’s Davy (1964) includes one reference to a fulfilling group marriage (MMF); Leonard Daventry’s A Man of Double Deed (1965) contains a mixed take on the topic (MFF); Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) suggests polyandry will be required on the Moon; the 1969 revised version of Wilson Tucker’s The Long Loud Silence (1952) contains a relationship that breaks apart when the woman decides her child is not the main character’s (MMF); and Michael Bishop’s heart-warming “Old Folks at Home” (1978), which remains my favorite sustained treatment of the theme (a variety of marriage groups).

For a bit of context, check out Gideon’s thoughts over at Galactic Journey. He knew Purdom in his later years and relates some of the context which inspired this odd story.

Recommended for its unusual premise. I’m not convinced of its literary or narrative qualities.

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