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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

“Narrow Valley” by R. A. Lafferty

First appeared in Edward L. Ferman’s F&SF. Reprinted in several Year’s Best and genre retrospectives by Terry Carr, Judith Merril, Robert Silverberg, Martin H. Greenberg, Edward L. Ferman, Jack M. Dann, David G. Hartwell, Kathryn Cramer, Gardner R. Dozois, Stephen R. Donaldson, Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman, Brian M. Thomsen, Ellen Datlow, and Gordon Van Gelder. Online.
In order to keep his land after taxation took it away from him, Clarence Big-Saddle puts a curse on the land to make it seem less than it is. Several homesteaders have tried to occupy the land but failed. Scientists come to explain the phenomena of a land that looks like a ditch but whose length is longer than it seems.

The latest family to occupy the land seems to succeed although the Rampart father has to be carried bodily into the land. Some scientists come up with hypotheses and are self-satisfied with their validity while others simply scratch their heads--perhaps with a shade more honesty.

The latest Native American son, Clarence Little-Saddle, seeing the Ramparts adjusting to the difficult perspective, puts another curse on the land that flattens the Rampart family into two dimensions. This links it to Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland dimensional masterwork.

However, a stronger dimension is that between Native Americans and the homesteaders who took over their lands. While many gained lands through a kind of verbal trickery, Lafferty turns the tables. The Native American Saddle family literalizes the flat perspective the pioneering Ramparts family have of Native Americans on to their persons.

While clearly considered one of Lafferty’s classics, aspects of the tale get over-gnawed. Interestingly, this story is classified as fantasy by some, SF by others as the story achieves its SF-ness through spells.


  1. I often refer to "Narrow Valley" as the Great American Short Story. This has everything in the canon of western American literature: homesteaders, a sheriff, Indians, eminent scientists complete with scientific babble, precocious children, and a joyous hopeful ending. It also has some of the most fun dialog you'll ever read (until you read "Hog-Belly Honey"):

    "...Clarence Big-Saddle called his son.

    'I've had it, boy,' he said. 'I think I'll just go in the house and die.'

    "Okay, Dad," the son, Clarence Little-Saddle, said. 'I'm going in to town to shoot a few games of pool with the boys. I'll bury you when I get back this evening.'"

    One of the characteristics of Lafferty's writing is his characters' dead-pan response to outrageous situations. He often inverts the regular world on the readers by treating the highly unusual as everyday and by implication, the usual as highly strange (or at least somewhat suspect).

    I like how you point out that he turns the tables on the story of westward expansion by having the Indians keep the land through verbal trickery. I hadn't thought of it in those terms before. Lafferty was very well aware of the how the Indians had fared in our long history of land deals and treaties with them--read his (searingly beautiful) historical novel Okla Hannali.

    Thank you for posting this review and discussion!

  2. Quite the response--astute and thorough. I appreciate your input and broadening the story. :)