'Sticks' is a poignant and concise short story by the contemporary American writer George Saunders, renowned for his Booker-Prize-winning novel, "Lincoln in the Bardo." This flash fiction piece, originally featured in Saunders' 2013 collection, "Tenth of December," revolves around a man reflecting on his father's peculiar habit of adorning two sticks outside their home with various items. As the story unfolds, these objects become increasingly personal as the father nears the end of his life.
Narrated by a man reminiscing about his family life during his upbringing, 'Sticks' focuses on his father's creation of a makeshift 'crucifix' using metal poles in the backyard. The father would decorate these sticks with different items to mark various occasions throughout the year.
For instance, during Thanksgiving, the narrator's father would festoon the sticks with a Santa costume, setting the tone for Christmas. On the week of the Super Bowl, the sticks would be adorned with an American football jersey (likely representing the father's favorite team) and a helmet borrowed from the narrator's brother, Rod.
On Independence Day, a figure representing Uncle Sam, the American national symbol, graced the sticks, while Veterans' Day saw a soldier decoration. Halloween brought a ghostly touch to the sticks. These seasonal rituals, however, were the only instances of joyfulness exhibited by the father.
Despite the festive adornments, the narrator reveals that his father's usual demeanor was strict and frugal, almost to an extreme degree. He imposed strict rules on his children, such as allowing them to use only one colored crayon at a time and scolding them for wasting food. This peculiar behavior went unnoticed by the narrator until he brought his girlfriend home, and his inability to explain his father's obsession with the sticks suddenly became evident.
As the children grew up, left home, and became parents themselves, they noticed that they were adopting their father's stinginess and meanness. Meanwhile, the father's decorations on the metal poles grew more erratic and illogical.
A Final Tribute
Following the death of their mother, the father adorned the metal pole with symbols of Death, including the Grim Reaper, and a photograph of his late wife as a baby. He also added mementos from his youth, including his late wife's makeup, and painted signs reading 'LOVE' and 'FORGIVE?'.
Eventually, the father passed away in the hallway of the house. The narrator and his siblings sold the house to a young couple who disposed of the metal poles by pulling them out of the ground and discarding them with the rubbish, bringing an end to this unique and emotional chapter in their family's history.
'Sticks' is a masterfully crafted example of flash fiction by George Saunders, where brevity is infused with a wealth of significant detail, leaving readers to draw their own inferences. The story delves into the peculiar ritualistic behavior of the narrator's father, who adorns two sticks outside their house with various items, each marking different occasions throughout the year. Saunders deliberately focuses on showing these details rather than explaining their meaning, urging readers to engage in interpretation.
Unanswered Questions and Symbolism
The narrator's inability to answer his girlfriend's question about his father's sticks leaves room for interpretation. While it could signify the recognition of his father's eccentricity, it may also indicate discomfort with discussing the family's peculiarities. The father's choice of decorations prompts reflection on human's innate need for ritual and commemoration. Notably, Easter, a holiday deeply connected to crucifix symbolism, is conspicuously absent from the father's observances, hinting at a hallowed-out version of Christianity.
The story takes a personal turn with the father's response to two events: Groundhog Day and an earthquake in Chile. These trigger new adornments on the sticks, which appear as acts of self-reflection. The signs reading 'LOVE' and 'FORGIVE?' offer a glimpse into the father's desire for forgiveness from his children. He communicates through the sticks since direct expression seems challenging for him, possibly due to a strained relationship with his children, shaped by a lifetime of strictness and frugality.
The Epiphany of the Father
'Sticks' echoes the modernist tradition of short stories featuring characters experiencing epiphanies. The father appears to undergo a revelation, but the story's narration from his son's perspective only allows readers a glimpse of the father's epiphany through the signs he leaves for his children to decipher. The story beautifully redefines Christian symbols into a personal ritual, turning the sticks into a means of communication with his grown-up children.
In conclusion, 'Sticks' is a remarkable piece of short fiction that skillfully uses Christian symbols, holidays, and the plea for forgiveness to create a deeply personal ritual for the father. Through its elegant brevity, Saunders opens a window into the complex dynamics of family relationships, communication, and the universal human need for commemoration and understanding.