Book of the Week

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Title: 41 Stories by O. Henry
Author: O. Henry

O. Henry is the pen name of William Sydney Porter(1862-1910). His first collection of short stories appeared in 1904. He continues to be one of the greatest short story writers of the world in my opinion. He could find the extraordinary in the ordinariness of everyday life and bring out the excellence of common men from different cultures who had come to seek a new life in America.

One of my favourites, The Last Leaf, is the story of how an old, unknown artist,  Behrman, painted a leaf on a tree to perfection to give hope to his young tenant, Johnsy.  Behrman rented rooms to Sue and Johnsy. Sue and Johnsy were poor artists too. All of them, including the old man, looked foward to painting a masterpiece at some point. In winter, Johnsy developed pneumonia. She felt hopeless and thought she would die when the last leaf fell from the ivy that clung to the wall outside her window. When old  Behrman heard this story from Sue, he stayed out all night to paint a leaf on the wall that would not fall. It was a wet, cold night.  Behrman caught pneumonia and died while Johnsy, seeing the painted last leaf survive regained hope and recovered. And as Sue tells Johnsy of Behrman’s demise, she says

 …look out the window, dear, at the last ivy leaf on the wall. Didn’t you wonder why it never fluttered or moved when the wind blew? Ah, darling, it’s Behrman’s masterpiece — he painted it on the night that last leaf fell.

The story is poignant and beautiful. It reminds me of St Valentine’s life. When he was imprisoned to be executed for being a christian, he healed his jailer’s  blind daughter. He did for others out of kindness as did Behrman, who on the surface, pretended to be gruff and harsh.

In O.Henry’s best known story, Gift of the Magi, Jim and Della sell each other’s most precious possessions to buy a gift for each other on christmas! Jim sells his ancestral gold watch and Della her beautiful tresses. Jim buys tortoise shell combs for Della’s hair and Della buys a platinum chain for the watch. It is again a very touching story. And just as you feel your heart fill with warmth towards Jim and Della, O.Henry writes,

Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they( Jim and Della) are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

And, in one sense, they are because they value love and giving over their own possessions, a rare gift in today’s world.

Some of O. Henry’s stories are really witty and funny like The Princess and the Puma and Hostages to Momus. The Princess and the Puma is a story about early American settlers in Texas. The princess, a wealthy girl of mixed origins, and tough, is not taken in by a quick witted ranger’s glib tongue but plays along with him. Hostages to Momus is a story about two conmen who feed and feast theIr hostage only to discover he cannot afford the ransom.

Each one of the forty  stories has a surprise ending and is really endearing. The stories explore and unify the diversity of cultures that existed in one land with their irony, humor and empathy towards human nature.

They bring out the best in human nature as does the celebration of diverse festivals (Chinese New Year, Valentine’s day, Family day, Basant Panchami and Saraswati Puja) all over the globe this weekend. 41 Stories by O. Henry reiterates the spirit of giving, kindness, humaneness and multi-cultural coexistence in our one world as do these festivals with their celebration of happiness, spring, wisdom, prosperity and goodness.

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