Bite-sized books: stories of Grandma Harken

Magazine Cover: Apex Magazine January 2014 - an old woman with a suggestion of antlers, holding a sharp knife and a cigarette

The Best of Apex kicks off with multi-awarding short story Jackalope Wives. When Eva’s brooding boy half-catches himself a jackalope wife, he turns to his Grandma Harken for help. But there’s not much an old lady can do about some mistakes. Or is there?

Bonus bite: Grandma Harken deserves more than one story, so Ursula Vernon wrote her another adventure – The Tomato Thief.

I have a huge heart for myth-making done well, and Ursula Vernon delivers a masterclass with these two stories.

Jackalope Wives reads like it wants to be read aloud – the rhythms of speech and its occasional nods to its audience – working its material gently to build an atmosphere and seed its ideas. Jackalope wives are irresistible. Jackalope wives are just out of reach. And some young men can’t help themselves – they’re the human equivalent, brooding and touched with just enough magic to charm the girls – and they have to try and catch one.

The change in perspective from the omniscient narrator to down-to-earth Grandma Harken is like splashing cold water on the face. She’s ornery and tough as old roots, unlikely to suffer fools like her grandson – but she’s got too much heart to turn away a creature in need.

Jackalope Wives focuses on her attempts to help the young jackalope wife half-caught in human form, giving us sharp, dark truths of where her grandson went wrong. The Brothers Grimm might be proud of the self-centred arrogance required to catch a jackalope wife, but they could never have dreamt up Grandma Harken.

Belligerent and wise in the ways of the desert, she sets off to see if she can find a spirit that will put things right. It’s a fabulous twist on the traditional story of the man who tries to tame a shape-changing wife, both in its portrayal of the wife – here more rabbit than woman, confused and afraid – and in telling it from the perspective of a wise-woman who knows a little too much about such things.

The Tomato Thief is a much longer tale, but follows a similar form: Grandma Harken is incensed when someone – or something – steals her newly-ripe tomatoes each night, but is moved to pity when she discovers that the shape-changing thief isn’t doing so of free will. Her second odyssey into the desert keeps unpacking the ideas of the first, elaborating the mythologies of desert spirits and introducing the fascinating concept of the train-gods (they might carry you from coast to coast, if you’re lucky).

These are stories that are delightful taken at face value, but which are woven from a rich tapestry of symbolism that bears far closer reading than I’m giving them today. I shall be revisiting both, I’m sure, to delve a little deeper (and enjoy Grandma Harken’s company). Grandma Harken is a gift of a heroine, and I have enjoyed every minute I’ve spent with her across these two tales. I hope to read more of her exploits in future – although I have a sad feeling that one such tale will be her last.


Jackalope Wives and The Tomato Thief can be read online at Apex.

Bite-sized Books is a weekly celebration of short-form fiction and you’re invited to join in! Share your recent review(s) of a short story, novella, novelette or anthology – add a link in the comments so we can share the love.