Close Reading of Ron Hansen’s “Wickedness”

Upon closer look of Ron Hansen’s “Wickedness,” there is much more meaning behind nearly every word than one probably realizes on the first read. In the opening paragraph about the schoolteacher, Hattie Benedict, Hansen is able to stir the reader’s emotional investment in the story through simple word choice. For instance, the use of one word tainted the character Hattie for the remainder of the piece for me on the first read. Hansen wrote, “She had been impatiently watching four girls…” The word “impatiently” is the one that sticks out. Impatient teachers are often mean spirited and through my own experience as a teacher, it conjures an image and feeling for Hattie Benedict that was unjustified. This one word caused me to judge her to be wicked just like the storm.

As Francine Prose stresses in Reading Like a Writer, writing is like composing music, every word has to be carefully planned and executed at the right time. A reader can pick out the wrong word just as a concertgoer can pick out the wrong note. If the reading feels off, the author most likely intended to cause a feeling of uncertainty. A writer’s words and sentences should be deliberately chosen to stir emotion.

For instance in “Wickedness” when Hansen writes about the storm, he made it a character (the devil: more on that later), and the storm is quite aggressive. Hansen is able to make the reader feel this aggression through not only the meaning of the words but also by using sound whether the words echo in the reader’s mind or while reading out loud. Every one of the storm’s verbs carries a hard consonant sound to make the reader feel like he got punched, “tortured… cracked… torn… socked… pounded… sucked… snapped… [and] jabbed”. Not one of theses words is soft and caressing. Also, Hansen has directed the sentence length just like a conductor waves his baton to guide his orchestra.

When discussing the long length of one of Virginia Wolf’s sentences, Francine Prose states, “Possibly the principal reason why the sentence so delights us is that to read it is to take part in the process… ” If the reader were to read Hansen’s long sentence out loud, he would have to rush through the sentence in order to finish before running out of breath. This creates tension like the tension Hattie feels, and Hansen probably felt while writing. So in a sense, the reader conjoins with the author and the character for the entire experience.

In Hattie’s opening paragraph, the sentences rise and fall in length:

            Hattie Benedict was in her Antelope County schoolyard overseeing the

noon recess in a black cardigan sweater and gray wool dress when the January

blizzard caught her unaware. She had been impatiently watching four girls in

flying coats playing Ante I Over by tossing a spindle of chartreuse yarn over the

one-room schoolhouse, and then a sharp cold petted her neck and Hattie

turned toward the open fields of hoarfrosted scraggle and yellow grass. Just a

half mile away was a gray blur of snow underneath a dark sky that was all

hurry and calamity, like a nighttime city of sin-black buildings and havoc in the

streets. Wind tortured a creekside cottonwood until it cracked apart. A tin

water pail rang in a skipping roll to the horse path. One quarter of the tar-

paper roof was torn from the schoolhouse and sailed southeast forty feet. And

only then did Hattie yell for the older boys with their cigarettes and clay pipes

to hurry in from the prairie twenty rods away, and she was hustling a dallying

girl inside just as the snowstorm socked into her Antelope County schoolhouse,

shipping the building awry off its timber skids so that the southwest ascended

unsteadily while ordering the children to open their “Webster Franklin Fourth

Reader” to the Lord’s Prayer in verse and to say it aloud. And then Hattie stood

by her desk with her pink hands held theatrically to her cheeks as she looked

up at the walking noise of bricks being jarred from the chimney and down the

roof. Every window view was as white as if butchers’ paper had been tacked up.

Winds pounded into the windowpanes and dry window putty trickled onto the

unpainted sills. Even the slough grass fire in the hay-burner stove was sucked

high into the tin stack pipe so that the soot on it reddened and snapped. Hattie

could only stare. Four of the boys were just about Hattie’s age, so she didn’t say

anything when they ignored the reading assignment and earnestly got up

from the wooden benches in order to argue ‘oughts’ and ‘ought nots’ in the

cloakroom. She heard the girls saying Amen and then she saw Janusz Vasko,        who was fifteen years old and had grown up in Nebraska weather, gravely

exiting the cloakroom with a cigarette behind one ear and his right hand raised

high overhead. Hattie called on him, and Janusz said the older boys agreed

that they could get the littler ones home, but only if they went out right away.

And before she could even give it thought, Janusz tied his red handkerchief over

his nose and mouth and jabbed his orange corduroy trousers inside this

antelope boots with a pencil.

The point in which Hattie realizes the storm is coming quickly, and it is going to be a great disaster, she rushes the children inside. Just as she closes the door, the storm hits the building so hard; it “ships” a corner of the schoolhouse off its foundation, causing the whole building to tip in one direction. This all happens in one sentence consisting of 95 words, which is a very long sentence when compared with the rest.

Hattie’s realization of the storm’s haste and severity is the climax of the first paragraph. Additionally, this sentence and those around it are filled with common words and images that conjure a sailing vessel lost at sea in a massive storm. Below is a graph mapping the number of words in each sentence of the first paragraph. Notice the similarity to pitching and falling waves.

While the sentence length adds definition, the words themselves provide the basic elements and components for the rise and fall of the emotional waves of the gravitating intensity. As noted earlier, the word “impatient,” can mean something completely different than I first assumed. It must be remembered most words have more than one definition. When examining this particular word more closely, I realized it was not only the word that needed a closer inspection, but the sentence and the paragraph called for just as much attention. The incoming storm caused Hattie to be impatient, nervous, like an animal can become anxious right before an earthquake or storm. “Impatient” was not the only word that had a much deeper meaning, in fact, there were many throughout the entire paragraph that carried much more significance than that which was on the surface. Before expounding, it is important for the reader to know more about the author, Ron Hansen.

Ron Hansen is a Catholic deacon who has attended mass almost every day for his entire life. In all of his writing, he integrates and blends morality and history into each piece of work. Since he grew up in Nebraska, it is no wonder he chose the real storm of 1888, also known as the Schoolhouse Blizzard, to write about. Hansen used factual details about three different schoolteachers and combined them into Hattie Benedict and Janusz Vasko, the student who volunteers to bring the “little ones” home.

Janusz Vasko’s name stands out in this story. It is not like the others. It looks and sounds different. Janusz is polish for John. There was a small polish community in Nebraska at the time of the storm. Poles were known for being hard workers, and the most laborious jobs went to them. In the story, Janusz and his nameless friends (they remain nameless so they do not distract the reader from Janusz) volunteer to take 12 children home to deposit them safely to their families.

Being a practicing Catholic, Hansen most likely chose this polish name because of John the Baptist. Through baptizing many people, including Jesus, John the Baptist was able to “save” the people and bring them home to God. The name Vasko is also significant because of the famous explorer, Vasco de Gama, who was the first man to sail from Europe around Africa and all the way to India. Due to stormy seas and pirates, this was an extremely dangerous route. Janusz could have also been lost in a sea of snow but he was triumphant and saved the “little ones”.

Nautical terms in this section support my reading of this name choice. When the wind tore off the tarpaper on the schoolhouse roof, it “sailed” for 40 feet.

Standing off in the distance, a group of boys were “20 rods away.” “20 rods” is a certain distance, but why did Hansen not just say 100 yards, meaning the same thing. The word “rod” conjures images of fishing poles.

When Hattie is rushing back inside, the wind hits the side of the building so hard, the schoolhouse is “shipped” off its foundation causing one corner of the building to drop six inches and “the oak-plank floor to become a slope”. The word “plank” will remind readers of pirates forcing victims to their death. The schoolhouse image Hansen has created is like a ship tilting in a storm.

The storm outside causes the windows to look as if they have been covered with butcher’s paper. Another image reminiscent of sailing, more specifically the sails. The butcher paper has a double meaning as it also reminds the reader of slaughter and death. 235 people died in the Schoolhouse Blizzard.

Hattie stands with her hands over her cheeks looking up at the chimney listening to it creek and fall away and the bricks walk down the roof. Her “ship” is being pulled apart by the wind.

Before Janusz and the other boys leave with the children, Janusz ties a red handkerchief around his mouth and nose. Hansen did not need to add this detail; therefore, it must be significant. First, it is an ancient Indian belief that tying a knot in a handkerchief is a charm against evil. Second, this is the first sign of any color in the story. Every other tint previously mentioned or implied embodies nothingness or death.

Hattie is introduced by describing the color of her clothes. We do not know what color hair she has because it is not important.  The fact she is wearing a black sweater and a grey dress is significant as it creates setting and atmosphere. In Writing Fiction, Burroway states a writer must create atmosphere in order for the reader to be engaged and for the “characters to be able to breathe.” The simple color Hattie chooses to wear is most important because black (her cardigan) suggests death or something ominous. Gray (her dress) is the color of ash, also symbolic of death. This sets up the whole story. Death will follow.

In the opening scene, Hattie is “impatiently watching” four girls who are playing with a spindle of Chartreuse yarn. Chartreuse is a light greenish-yellow color, similar to that of dead skin. Just as a side note, the spindle they are playing with reminds the reader of Sleeping Beauty, who pricks her finger and falls asleep for one hundred years. Hattie and the two children who are left behind fall asleep in the storm. Hattie is the only one who wakes up.

Another color presented is the hoarfrosted scraggle. Hoarfrosted means a frost so cold it looks gray. Additional dead grass around the building is yellow. The tin pail that rolls across the yard is gray. When Hattie looks off in the distance and sees the snow, it looks gray and the sky is dark, all colors representative of death.

Hansen describes the impending storm as “a gray blur of snow underneath a dark sky that was all hurry and calamity.” By Hansen’s use of the word “calamity” we know Hattie saw a great misfortune or disaster coming even though it was a “blur”: obscure. Hansen also writes it was “like a nighttime city of sin-black buildings and havoc in the streets.” He describes the storm as if it is alive and making decisions to sin, to kill innocent children.

Hansen describes the storm as alive at other points of the story. He writes, “…a sharp cold petted her neck”. The wind does not pet anything. Only a person is capable of petting something. Hansen also wrote, “Wind, tortured a creek side cottonwood.” He omitted the expected article the as if to make the element a person instead of a thing. How does the wind torture something? And how is a tree to feel something like torture? In this sentence every thing is personified. Thus the storm is a character, the protagonist and the antagonist.

The story’s name, “Wickedness” means evil or morally bad, sinful, extremely troublesome or dangerous, vicious, mean, distressingly severe, and my favorite, beastly. Beastly is most important because after reading about Hansen’s life and his religious influence, I suggest the storm is not only death personified but also the devil. The most notable personification of the storm phrase is, “a sharp cold petted her neck.” Petting is a form of caressing. It is considered to be a tender moment or even an amorous one. When a person thinks about a “sharp cold petting” the action does not fit the description. But if the reader is able to think about the sharp cold as Satan himself, then yes, one can understand why Hansen chose the word “pet.” Catholics believe Satan is always trying to lure the devout away from the church, away from God.

It is not just the storm’s name that is important, Hattie Benedict’s also holds great secrets. First, one must know Hattie is short for Harriet. The most famous woman who shares the same name is Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book which can be read as a story about freeing God’s children. Hattie allowed her students to go forth, to walk out into the storm. By this action, she freed her students thus giving them life. Those whom were not freed died. More obvious is her last name, Benedict, undoubtedly chosen for Saint Benedict, the patron saint of students.

As the story progresses, Hattie tends to a fire in the stove and uses slough grass. This type of grass comes from bogs, where death and decay reside. Also, the word slough means a condition of degradation, despair, and helplessness: the point Hattie has reached. The storm sucks the fire up the chimney, where it causes the soot, which is normally black (death) on the pipe to glow red (symbol of danger). A fire roaring up a chimney is an omen of a storm. The falling of soot is an omen for bad weather or a disaster.

Other symbols are actual numbers. Because Hansen uses so many numbers in one paragraph, it seems they are important, especially when repeated like the number four. There are four girls who are playing outside before the storm hits, and there are four boys who discuss taking the “little ones” home. Firstly, in the Bible, on the fourth day of creation, God finished making the material world. It is the material world that is wreaking havoc is this story. The fourth book in the Bible is the book of Numbers and the title is the “Wilderness.” In Hansen’s “Wickedness,” the storm is taking place in the wilderness, and the boys have to venture out into that wilderness to be tested in order to save the children.

In the book Numbers, the Israelites set out for the Promised Land, just as Janusz has done with his children.

Many Christians believe the most important parts of the New Testament are the gospels because they are the “good news” that Jesus Christ came down from Heaven to save humanity from their sins. According to scripture, when he died on the cross, our souls were saved. The gospels give hope to believers that they have the opportunity to live alongside Jesus after death. There are four gospels and they were written by four of Jesus’ apostles.

Ironically, the number of children leaving with Janusz is twelve. This is no accident as there were twelve disciples who trusted in God and were the ones who were to spread His word.

The number forty is used to describe how far the tarpaper flew when it was ripped from the roof. As stated before, this section has quite a few sailing references. When people think about a ship from the Bible, most would think about Noah’s ark. In that story, it rained for forty days and forty nights. Now that was quite a storm.

A Catholic believes God tests his people many times over. Israel spent forty years being tested in the wilderness. I have to ask, how is Hattie being tested? Or is “Wickedness” a story whose purpose is to remind readers we are all being tested? In the end, Hattie has to make a decision. She decides to go out into the storm to try and save the last two children. Was that her test? Or was her test that she has to live with the reality both of those children died because of her decision? When faced with obstacles, what we do and how we react reveal who we are. Hansen illustrates even a hero like Hattie can fail. Good people are not spared and sometimes they are the ones tested the most.

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