Prairie Fire, 1899
by Mike Alberti
Issue #226 • March 21, 2017•Buy Now!
First there was nothing, just the silent, empty prairie and the darkness lying heavy over it.
Then there was the train, the great black engine that had steamed out of Fargo and hurled itself west across the plains, making speed because its cars were empty of freight and because every hour the engineer yelled back to the stoker to keep the fire roaring. Boiling, furious, the train heaved through the night and through the liquid predawn glow and as the sun floated up over the eastern rim of the world the train was still churning west and towing that blazing globe behind it, pulling it up out of the dark. Midmorning, the train stopped in the coal town of Sims, North Dakota, where it took on four cars of brown lignite and then went on, aimed at Tacoma. Ten miles outside of Sims, the stoker cleared the ash pan, tossed the white-hot clinker out of the engine into the vacant prairie, where the wheatgrass and bluestem were October-brown and bending with a western breeze.
That breeze blew back to Sims, where it was Sunday, Sabbath.
Mike Alberti is from Albuquerque. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Minnesota. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Crazyhorse, Flyway, and Gulf Coast. He lives in Minneapolis, where he is at work on a novel.
Patrick Ryan on Prairie Fire, 1899
When I was growing up in Florida, we would have tornados now and then. They were long and skinny, or fat and stubby, descending out of storm clouds to crack like a whip over our town, or poking down like the nose of a dog nudging a sand castle. The scariest thing about them—even scarier than their unpredictability—was their strength.
I was reminded of those tornados when I first read Mike Alberti’s “Prairie Fire, 1899.” There are no tornados in this story, but, as the title suggests, there is a fire. A wide, merciless fire. And, as we all know, fires are merciless not because they don’t want to show mercy; they’re merciless because they’re single-minded. They want only one thing: to burn.
The new issue of One Story is about the meeting of that fire and a mining community on the American frontier at the turn of the century. It has a classic, almost formal voice, and a narrator that moves from person to person with the ease of a spark carried on a breeze. In our Q&A, Mike Alberti describes it as “a sort of fable about the West.” It’s a remarkable, large-hearted short story with great staying power. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
Q&A by Patrick Ryan
But I also think of this story as a sort of fable about the West, and I felt that the fabulous structure demanded some kind of “moral.” In one way or another, most of us subscribe to the profoundly human-centric view of the universe, in which we’re at the center of things and God is always paying very close attention to whatever foolishness we’re up to down here. But I wanted to open up the possibility of a contrasting perspective, in which all our greatest human dramas might be considered pretty trivial and uninteresting in the grander scheme of things. I hope the final image of God holds the tension between those two views, and carries the weight of the “moral.”
For non-fiction, Ned Blackhawk’s Violence Over the Land and William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis are both amazing books that taught me a lot about white colonial settlement in the West, among other things. And I had a ton of fun reading Ian Frazier’s Great Plains.
When I was in college, ZZ Packer visited my school to give a reading, and somehow I had the absurd good fortune of having a manuscript conference with her. At the time, I was writing these short stories that were just totally derivative. And she called me on it. She even named the writers I was copying. I thought I was really cleverly hiding my influences, and she saw right through me. But then she told me that imitating writers you admire is not necessarily a bad thing, and can be very productive. Once you’ve done an imitation, she said, the important thing is to try to discern what’s different about your work, what your specific obsession is, what unique voice or weirdness you’ve created. Then, write into that weirdness.