“What the Thunder Said” by Janet Peery

Best American Short Stories 1993
“What the Thunder Said”
Janet Peery


I enjoyed this short story, about Mackie Spoon, an eighteen-year-old girl on her own, hired to help a couple on their farm. Call Lucas is thirty-seven and his wife, Lila is sick. The unspeakable attraction between Call and Mackie hangs in the air and they fall together, inevitably, despite Lila’s illness and weakness. When Mackie begins to imagine a life with Call, change is inevitable.

I like this story because it’s a great example of how people have sure ideas about how things will work out, but what actually happens is quite different. It’s the different ending that makes “What the Thunder Said” so effective. And particularly significant is how Mackie, years later, as with the brief illumination of lightning in a storm, she sees how foolish she’s been. Peery writes, “when the lightning flashed upon his eyes I saw, instead, my own, by awful trick of light, the hard and high and mighty vision of my own.”

What Mackie does next is like a clap of thunder. Is her message effective? Is she satisfied by her action? In just a few pages, Peery has written a great story that leaves you thinking. Check it out to see what I mean!

Janet Peery
Janet Peery

Janet Peery is an American writer of novels and short fiction. She is a Professor of English at Old Dominion University. She wrote “What the Thunder Said” in 1993 and has since written The River Beyond the World, a 1997 National Book Award Finalist, Alligator Dance (1998), a collection of short stories and her latest collection, What the Thunder Said: A Novella and Stories, published in 2008.

In the back of The Best American Short Stories – 1993, Peery explains how “What the Thunder Said” came about:

The first draft was written during three summer days at a time when I was letting go of a part of my life that had been both terrible and sweet. The story’s circumstances are imagined, but its heart comes out of that release.

She set this story in the Arkansas River bottomland country, a place where she spent many summers with her mother’s family. When her grandparents took her to see a neighbor’s farmhouse burning, she was drawn to the image of the burned-out building, and inside the ruins, she spotted a lone teapot. She writes about how she incorporated this teapot into the end of her story.

It looked nothing like a house, and the only object I could put a name to was a teapot, the old cast-iron kind, its spiral handle a small, black arc against the smoke-white air. It seemed the emblem of domestic ruin, loss, and want, of gone things, and though it was perhaps the smallest thing I could have noticed, this teapot seemed to contain largeness, tragedy, to stand for some act of scarifying moment, and I was terrified. Then, in the way that often happens with those sights we promise ourselves we’ll fasten into memory, I forgot it.

Remembered years later, Peery found a place for this teapot.  I think this is a great way of taking a meaningful event from her own life and incorporating it into a story!

Here are some links with additional information about Janet Peery:


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