By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Sticks’ is a very short story by the contemporary American writer George Saunders (born 1958), who is perhaps best-known for his 2017 Booker-Prize-winning novel Lincoln in the Bardo. This piece of flash fiction, which was included in Saunders’ 2013 collection Tenth of December, sees a man recalling his father’s habit of decorating two sticks outside their house with various items, which become more and more personal as the father approaches death.
You can read the story here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.
‘Sticks’: plot summary
The story is narrated by a man who is recalling his family life growing up. Specifically, he remembers how his father had built a kind of ‘crucifix’ out of metal pole in the family’s back yard, and then decorated these sticks with various seasonal items.
For example, at Thanksgiving the narrator’s father would drag a Santa costume out to the sticks and adorn them with it in the run-up to Christmas. During the week of the Super Bowl, he would dress it in a jersey (presumably the jersey of the American football team he supported) as well as a helmet (belonging to the narrator’s brother, Rod) worn by American football players.
For Independence Day on the fourth of July, meanwhile, a representative of Uncle Sam, the American national mascot, adorned the sticks, while on Veterans’ Day it was a soldier, and for Halloween it was a ghost.
The story then takes a slightly darker tone, as the narrator tells us that these seasonal rituals were the only joyful things his father did. Otherwise, he was strict and frugal to an almost extreme degree, only allowing his children to play with one coloured crayon at a time, and telling his children off for wasting food.
But there’s a suggestion that the narrator didn’t realise that such behaviour was unusual, until he brought a girlfriend back to the house and, when she asked about his father’s strange obsession with the sticks, he found himself sitting there and blinking, unable to answer.
In the story’s second paragraph, the narrator tells us that he and his siblings grew up, left home, and became parents themselves. They realised that they were starting to resemble their father in terms of their meanness and stinginess. Meanwhile, their father begins to dress his metal pole in a more erratic and illogical fashion.
When their mother dies, the father adorned the pole with Death (the Grim Reaper) and a photograph of his late wife when she was a baby. He also decorates it with various possessions from his youth, including his late wife’s makeup. He paints signs which say ‘LOVE’ and ‘FORGIVE?’. He died in the hallway of the house, and the narrator and his siblings sold the house to a young couple who yanked the poles out of the ground and threw them out with the rubbish.
Running to just two paragraphs, ‘Sticks’ can be regarded as an example of flash fiction. Yet Saunders packs a great deal of significant detail into these two paragraphs, making it difficult to summarise the ‘plot’ of the story with any certainty. The story is so intently focused on showing us details rather than telling us what they mean, that we are forced to infer certain elements of the narrative.
For example, why did the narrator simply blink when his date asked him about his father’s sticks? We can surmise that it’s because he is realising how odd his father’s ritualistic behaviour is, but that is all it is: a surmise, or a tentative guess.
He might just as easily blink because he finds the question offensive, or because he has already recognised the oddness of his father’s makeshift crucifix and he is unwilling to defend or explain it.
Similarly, to what extend should we look for symbolism in the father’s choice of garments and trinkets to adorn the sticks? Is the fashioning of the metal poles into a ‘crucifix’ suggestive of a kind of latter-day religion, a hollowed-out American Christianity based as much on sport (that Super Bowl reference) as Christmas?
Note how Easter, the one annual holiday for which a crucifix has actual significance and symbolism, is notable by its absence from the list of holiday observances which the father makes.
Certainly it would appear that Saunders is encouraging us to reflect on the innate human need for ritual, for observing anniversaries – whether these are religious (Christmas), national (Thanksgiving, Independence Day), or personal (his wife’s death). We like to observe these significant dates and to remember and memorialise.
But the story takes a more personal turn in that second paragraph. Two events which involve major change (literally seismic in the case of the latter) prompt the father to erect new decorations: Groundhog Day (where the arrival or non-arrival of spring is said to turn on whether the groundhog sees its own shadow) and an earthquake in Chile, a momentous event which perhaps acts as a catalyst for the father’s self-reflection.
And other things are hinted at by those final signs which exhort the reader to ‘LOVE’ and ‘FORGIVE?’. The question mark changes the meaning, of course. The father doesn’t appear to be urging others to forgive people in general, but rather to be begging for forgiveness for his own sins or ‘errors’ (note how he had previously taped notes to the sticks, notes which are described as letters of apology, admissions of error, and pleas for understanding).
The erecting of six little poles around the main one indicates that it is his children he is seeking forgiveness from, including the (grown-up) narrator of the story, for a lifetime of strictness and frugality and very little joy.
But he cannot do this directly: he doesn’t know how. The only way he can communicate his feelings is via the sticks. The string he ties between the central pole and the six little sticks is at once a bridge between father and children, and a flimsy symbol of the delicate (and at times strained?) relationship he had with them.
In short, ‘Sticks’ is a masterly piece of short fiction which hollows out the symbols of Christianity – the crucifix, the annual holidays and observances, the plea for forgiveness – to create a personal ritual for the narrator’s father. He co-opts the impersonal and national or universal commemorations the sticks are used to observe, and transforms his sticks into a personal means of communication with his grown-up children.
Since modernism in the early twentieth century, many modern short stories have contained characters who undergo a kind of epiphany: a revelation or realisation which prompts them to reassess their view of the world or of themselves.
In ‘Sticks’, the father appears to have some kind of epiphany, but because the story is narrated by (and focalised through) his son, we only glimpse this epiphany from a distance, via those ‘signs’ the father leaves for his children to read.