Sunday, May 31, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 22: "Black Snowflakes" by Paul Horgan

This week the Queen of Spades led me to an affecting story about death and a child's sudden realization of mortality. I think it's quite interesting that this card was unwittingly linked to this story in my Deal Me In roster for this year. The Queen of Spades is a card that often has a dark, negative connection. According to Wikipedia, it's an unlucky, undesirable card in the game of Hearts, and it's also used as the Old Maid when one uses a regular deck of cards for that game. It also figures in the famous story by Pushkin. So this was just another example of Deal Me In synchronicity, which is one of the things that makes this reading challenge so interesting.


"Black Snowflakes" begins this way:

"Richard, Richard," they said to me often in my childhood, "when will you begin to see things as they are?"

But I always learned from one thing what another was, and it was that way when we all went from Dorchester to New York to see my grandfather off for Europe, that year before the First World War broke out.

The story is told from the point of view of Richard as a child, and it's a mesmerizing world of high society, comfort, and shelter. Richard's grandfather was originally from Germany, and he made a trip back to his homeland every year or two as a matter of habit. But this year's trip is different, and the entire family is traveling to see "Grosspa" (as they call him) set off on the ocean liner. Richard feels that something is wrong -- everyone is acting differently, there are sudden bouts of crying by some of the family members -- but he really can't put his finger on what it is. Besides, there's so many special delights and treats on this trip. The family stays in the Waldorf-Astoria the night before the ocean voyage, Richard gets his first glass of champagne (highly watered-down, of course, but still exciting for him), and he has the promise of shopping in New York and buying gifts for his friends, which includes the neighborhood ice delivery man and his horse.

It soon becomes clear that Grosspa is dying, however, and that he is going home to Germany to die. Richard understands this but also doesn't understand it -- that is, it doesn't sink in. After the family leaves the boat, with Grosspa on it, "like some wounded old lion crawling home to die," in the words of Richard's father, Richard sees snowflakes falling from the sky. These snowflakes appear black to him against the sunlight, and he tells his parents to look at the black snowflakes. His parents see this as another example of Richard's not being able to see things as they really are. However, eventually Richard experiences another death that brings all of this home to him and finally lets him see what death means and what it is like.

This was a captivating story. The language, the imagery, and the plot all worked perfectly together to evoke a mood for this reader that lasted long after the story was over. I highly recommend it!

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.


  1. Going by your account, it certainly sounds like this story was correctly included in the BASS volume for its year.

    If you successfully "shot the moon" in hearts as much as my dad was able to do, the queen of spades was not such an unlucky card. :-)

    I just read Bradbury's "Dandelion Wine" last week, so the theme of children "discovering mortality" is one I've been thinking about lately.

    1. LOL! Right you are -- the Queen of Spades doesn't HAVE to be unlucky (but it normally is for people like me). :-)

      It would be rather a depressing project, but I would be interested to see a list of stories that deal with the subject of the first understanding of mortality. Might be a good idea for a suit on next year's list!

  2. I've not read this book but I noticed that you're reading The Emperor of Maladies. I am in the middle of reading this book too. I'll be eventually reviewing it on my blog and I hope you will be posting a review as well. I will be interested in seeing someone else's take.

    1. I'll certainly be posting something on it. It has kind of bogged down on me and I am not making much progress. (Plus it's a little bit depressing to read.) But I will finish it!