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The Ice Wagon’s Wheels Come Off: Mavis Gallant and Sadia Shepard in The New Yorker

Yesterday I learned that an short story featured in the January 8, 2018 issue of The New Yorker—“Foreign-Returned” by Sadia Shepard—bore a more than casual resemblance to the late Mavis Gallant’s story, “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street.” (Gallant’s story was also originally published in a 1963 issue of The New Yorker.)

Francine Prose, an author and fan of Gallant’s work, had posted on Facebook that someone should read both, as Shepard’s was “a scene by scene, plot-turn by plot-turn, gesture by gesture, line-of-dialogue by line-of-dialogue copy—the only major difference being that the main characters here are Pakistanis in Connecticut during the Trump era instead of Canadians in post-WW II Geneva.”

Prose laments that Gallant—by all accounts an incredible author—has faded into near-oblivion, to the point where another writer can take her work and grab from it with impunity. And even get published in the same magazine that published the original work. I’ll admit I am not familiar with Gallant, but having worked as an editor, I am familiar with the old excuse of, “I might have read [the original work] and I guess it stayed in my subconscious, so that’s what’s on paper.” However, I was willing to give Shepard the benefit of the doubt—until I read both stories.

I started with Shepard’s “Foreign-Returned” first and liked it quite a bit. It didn’t break new ground in terms of plot or character, but not every story has to do that. It was enjoyable, I identified with the characters, and it had an ending that didn’t feel abrupt or tacked on.

Then I read “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street,” and it hurt—not because of the content of the story, but to this book editor, Shepard clearly took more than her share. Some artists remain in the public consciousness for decades, centuries. Gallant only died four years ago and already her work is being scavenged for bits because, “Mavis who?”

I could bullet point enough similarities from both stories to go on and on, so I’ll just pick a few, so you can see what Prose and I both mean. I’ll start with Shepard’s:

  • In Connecticut, an immigrant Pakistani named Hassan is forced to share a desk with American-born Pakistani named Hina because, it’s reasoned, they’re both basically from the same country and will therefore get along.
  • Hina immediately fills out her desk with a copy of the Koran, her diploma, and a shiny new pen.
  • Hassan and his wife, Sara—especially Sara—feel badly about their middling social status, and spend weekends at the Ahmed’s (a wealthy immigrant Pakistani couple) hoping to climb the social ladder. They are subsequently cut off when they don’t move up a rung.
  • Hassan and Sara are, however, shocked to learn that the Ahmeds have included Hina in their social circle, and invite Hina over to try and get the scoop. The dinner is awkward, with Hina refusing to eat the steak served because it’s not Halal.
  • A party at the Ahmed’s ends with Hassan getting drunk, Hina leaving early because she’s mortified by the “real” Pakistanis’ behavior, and Hassan being called upon to escort her home.

Well, as you can see, I chose more than a few. Once I got started, it was difficult to stop. Here is Gallant’s:

  • In Geneva, an immigrant Canadian named Peter is forced to share a desk with another Canadian named Agnes because, it’s reasoned, they’re both basically from the same country and will therefore get along. (Even though they’re from vastly different parts of Canada.)
  • Agnes immediately fills her desk with a copy of the Bible, her diploma, and a shiny new pen.
  • Peter and his wife, Sheilagh—especially Sheilagh—feel badly about their middling social status, and spend weekends at the Burleigh’s (a wealthy immigrant Canadian couple), hoping to climb the social ladder. They are subsequently cut off when they don’t move up a rung.
  • Peter and Sheilagh are, however, shocked to learn that the Burleighs have included Agnes in their social circle, and invite Agnes over to try and get the scoop. The dinner is awkward, with Agnes refusing to eat the lobster served because she says it causes skin poisoning.
  • A party at the Burleigh’s ends with Agnes getting drunk and leaving early because she’s mortified at the hosts’ and guests’ behavior, and Peter being called upon to escort her home.

I could continue, with almost word-for-word quotes and additional scenes, but it would A) ruin Mavis Gallant’s story, and B) I think I’ve made my point. The New Yorker has come under scrutiny for lowering its standards, perhaps for better ad dollars, perhaps because it’s a magazine that’s evolving with the times. Either way, to publish a short story without knowing it was essentially already published in your magazine years ago—or perhaps it was known—is probably the saddest part of it all.