Reading “Some Say the World”

In my post on “The Shawl” I show how a somewhat bibliotherapeutic approach to the story can be facilitated by following a central image through close reading. We can take a similar approach to Susan Perabo’s “Some Say the World,” which originally appeared in TriQuarterly (sometime between 1994-1996, according to various sources), but which I am reading from Frosch’s Coming of Age in the 21st Century. I’m considering teaching this story in my Critical Approaches to the ‘Family’ Program because it tells the story from the perspective of a teenager living in a broken and dysfunctional family who ends up finding a family bond with a parental figure who is not her blood relation. The protagonist is a young, heavily-medicated pyromaniac stuck at home playing Parcheesi with her stepfather while her irresponsible, self-absorbed mother carries on a regular affair with her ex-husband, the protagonist’s estranged father. Predictably, the central image in the story is fire.The story opens provocatively: There is fire in my heart. I do what I can” (189). Soon we learn that the teenager started playing with lighters under her bed covers right around the time her parents started their affair. She describes the emotions she experiences in the presence of flame:

The thing about fire is this: it is yours for one glorious moment. You bear it, you raise it. The first time, in the record store downtown, I stood over the bathroom trash can, thinking I would not let it grow, that I would love it only to a point, and then kill it. That is the trick with fire. For that thirty seconds, you have a choice: spit on it, step on it, douse it with a can of Coke. But wait one moment too long, get caught up in its beauty, and it has grown beyond your control. And it is that moment that I live for. The relinquishing. The power passes from you to it. The world opens up, and you with it. I cried in the record store when the flame rose above my head: not from fear, but from ecstasy. (191)

By the end of the narrative, however, the narrator leaves us with a considerably less dramatic or passionate description of fire: “Below me, I see a circle of teenagers standing around a small bonfire, warming their hands. Sparks pop around them and die in the grass as the flame reaches higher. The Ferris wheel whips toward it, and then away again, up into the night” (202).

Here are some of the reading and discussion questions for young (adolescent) readers:

  1. What is the effect of the first two sentences? What are they designed to make the reader think or feel?
  2. Explain the protagonist’s obsession with fire. How does she feel in the presence of flames? Focus especially on the passage on p. 191. There is another metaphor that runs through the first half of that description. What is it? What does “relinquishing” mean?
  3. Describe the mother in the story. What sort of relationship does she have with her daughter?
  4. Describe the relationship between the protagonist and Mr. Arnette. What draws them together? What do they have in common?
  5. What do you think of the ending? Does it resolve the tensions in the story? How do you imagine the story continues? [This is a good opportunity to build a writing exercise where students speculate on the fate of all the characters.]
  6. [Only for more sophisticated readers]: The title of the story is taken from the first line of the Robert Frost poem, “Fire and Ice” (1920). Explain how the poem relates to the story.
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