Editor’s Choice Award October 2020, Short Story

The Editors’ Choices are chosen from the submissions from the previous month that show the most potential or otherwise earn the admiration of our Resident Editors. Submissions in four categories — science fiction chapters, fantasy chapters, horror, and short stories — receive a detailed review, meant to be educational for others as well as the author.This month’s reviews are written by Resident Editors Leah Bobet, Jeanne Cavelos, and Judith Tarr. The last four months of Editors’ Choices and their editorial reviews are archived on the workshop.

Your Great Mother Across The Salt Sea by Kelsey Hutton

I was drawn to “Your Great Mother Across the Salt Sea” by its storyteller’s cadence, its powerfully simple speculative element, and how much it’s able to say about human relationships, power, responsibility, and ethical assertion in clean, uncluttered lines. It’s a great example of doing the most with every word and how we can, as writers, convey a perspective without making ourselves and our work smaller.

The first spark for me with “Your Great Mother Across the Salt Sea” is the idea: how soon the story presents it, and how it keeps its magic simple, precise, and deep. Miyohtwaw’s talent feels like the equivalent to describing something in one right detail instead of five iffy ones—one fantasy element with lots of thematic range instead of a complicated system—and that tidiness made this story’s focus clear, relevant, and powerful from the first lines. The potential of “clothes so powerful they made you become the person you needed to be” is instant and intriguing—because who you need to be might be very different than how you think of power, or what you want, and that’s an idea and set of values that bring great range to a discussion of power. Structurally, this means space for the story’s narrative conflict and growth is created inside three lines, and without much fuss at all: as a reader, I know what the stakes and the potential are immediately, and that they’re going to be nuanced and interesting to me.

There are a lot of small, smart choices that come in to support that question of power and its handling as the piece unfolds. I especially appreciated how the narration shows terms like “queen” in phonetics: it seats the story absolutely in Miyohtwaw’s perspective without breaking the fourth wall for explaining, and what we explain, who we centre, when writing about non-white, non-Christian cultures (especially our own!) is definitely a question of power. The story’s narration is enacting the lesson/realization it’s talking about—about not giving away your own power—in the way it chooses its words, and I found that form-function resonance very effective.

Likewise, the ending, with Miyohtwaw conveying finally to Victoria in a visceral way her own perspective, is a mirror for some of the work the story itself is doing, and the way content and form run in parallel is again, really strong craft work.

The other really strong point in “Your Great Mother Across the Salt Sea” is how it treats its situation with such thorough dignity. The slow deprivation of Miyohtwaw’s resources and work—until it’s her own clothes being demanded—is a crystal-clear allegory but not one that falls into melodrama, and the flickers of how Miyohtwaw has handled her own interrupted, disrupted relationships with parenting, priests, and relationship throw a really thoughtful parallel up, in terms of understanding the mess of 19th-century British colonial policy in a fully Cree perspective: a problem seated in relationships. It refocuses the crisis Miyohtwaw’s here to address as a larger, more dangerous echo of how Victoria handled her own mother, and treating these dynamics as people pinging off their cycles of abuse until they can grow feels astute, compassionate, and wholly invested in human dignity across the board, without obligating certain ideas of sympathy or forgiveness.

The history’s come through just fine for me as a reader (caveat: I’m familiar with Queen Victoria and something of the history of Canada’s treaties, so I might not be a totally representative reader on this).

The author’s asked specifically if there are logic jumps, and for me there was one significant skip of logic near the end: when Miyohtwaw reaches out to her relations’ power in her dress and it strangles Victoria. I didn’t find a turning point in this piece between “clothes so powerful they made you become the person you needed to be” and the laces moving at her request; there’s a change in both how this magic works and what it’s for—magic for being seen switching to magic for doing violence—and the sudden jump in both worldbuilding and tone is jarring. A piece very much worked in dignity and relationship and cycles feels like it might have just stepped back into a cycle of getting things done through inflicting pain, and that feels like it’s pulling against everything Miyohtwaw has said and done before. Because the story has already drawn that parallel, pulled attention to Victoria’s abusive upbringing, her pattern of relationships and the cycle she’s running, what might have glossed as pushing back at power just reads to me like falling back into the script of hitting someone abused to get results because it’s the language both parties seem to understand. It put a decidedly sour tinge into my reading of this piece.

It had me pause, go back through the story again, and ask whether the conditions the story sets up in the beginning hold up, or were to be believed: if any of those incarnations of Queen Victoria was the person she in fact needed to be. That’s a powerful word, and one that can be used to great narrative effect. What Miyohtwaw’s own dress seems to show Victoria is what other people’s perspective is, what her impact is on others. The narrative definitely argues that she’s not being who she needs to be at all, and it reopens basic questions on how that power works.

From a fantasy worldbuilding perspective, I think this is mostly a telegraphing problem: what is the framework the story sets for how this works, and how does she work within it, and if she breaks it entirely, is that underlined as a break? If this power was always supposed to be wider and deeper, then it might be a question of building the bridge between how it’s described and what the story needs it to do. If it’s a breach of consistency—if the power itself drifted in the writing—it might be a question of rethinking how the ending happens.

But as it stands, that jump has an impact: I think it creates a risk of the end of “Your Great Mother Across the Salt Sea” being read as a revenge story (less interesting) rather than something about slow work, and slow learning, and what power and relationships are and can be—which is what I got from it. Or of that ending forking somewhat into two very opposite readings, which could probably be resolved into an ending that keeps the rest of the piece’s balance of assertion, not weakness or violence.

There’s a ton of accomplished work in this piece, and while it’s a sticky issue to solve, this piece feels to me like it’s very close to ready. It’s deliberate, thoughtful, engrossing work, and I look forward to seeing it in print!

Best of luck!

–Leah Bobet, author of Above (2012) and An Inheritance Of Ashes (2015)


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