Enchantment by Thaisa Frank Short Story Discussion

enchantment button Welcome to today’s discussion of “The Mapmaker” from Thaisa Frank’s collection of short stories in Enchantment.

I selected “The Mapmaker” because its one of the longer stories in the collection and follows the passage of a “map” throughout the hands of a family.  The story is broken down into different parts:

“Dime Store”
“Sandra Greenaway”
“A Hidden City”
“The Journey of the Map”
“My Father’s Study”
“The Antique Writing Chest”
“A Walk in the Snow”
“A Visit to Ninevah”
“The Post Box”
“The Magician’s Eye”
“The Tibetan Book of the Dead”
“The Map”

I hope everyone has had a chance to read all of the sections for today’s discussion. I wanted to start everyone off with a few things to talk about.  Please be aware there could be spoilers.

1.  There seems to be a line drawn in this story between myth and reality, where the enchantment of the “fairy tale” is cracked or shattered.

2.   At the same time that the masks are taken down and reality reveals itself, the narrator sometimes continues to believe in a better place, a shining world where dreams are reality.

3.  Do you think that families are like countries, in that each person has their own boundaries and their own cultures that can sometimes clash and more?

OK, that’s enough from me.  Let’s get this discussion started…

Also, if you want to discuss another short story in October, let’s pick a date that we’re all available and see what story we all want to discuss.


  1. I agree that Thaisa Frank is a very subtle writer. I found her writing in the whole collection to be beautiful, and she does a wonderful job of saying so much in so few words. But I’m more of a novel person than a short story person, so I was fascinated by all of the characters and could see them all having their own novel. Maybe I’m just being greedy. 🙂

  2. This has been absolutely fascinating. So many thoughts and interpretations – just proves me to how subtle a writer Thaisa Frank is. I’m impressed with the strength of such a relatively short story – the hints, allusions, etc. all adding up to make an even bigger picture and story than the one on the page.

    I would love to do this again in October for another story. Everyone’s comments and additions brought so much more to this experience.

  3. This is a very interesting subject for me, too, Serena. And the story of what happens to this scattered and broken family remains interesting to me. I know sometimes people keep memories privately–in some kind of personal archive. Sometimes they gravitate toward the one or two people who have lived that history. And sometimes they choose not to remember, or to stifle memories. I’m reminded of what people whose parents were in the holocaust have said: Namely that it was never discussed. There were thousands of people who had been wounded by the Holocaust in different countries–many of them in urban environments like New York. Yet even when they could, they didn’t connect on a personal level, although many of them participated in more organized, less personal situations—official receiving of apologies, remembrance. And a few have spoken at schools. When I was writing Heidegger’s Glasses, I saw a lot of movies. One in particular struck me. It was called “Forgiving Dr. Mengele,” and about a holocaust victim in the Midwest. She had been a twin and Mengele (he was fascinated by twins) performed horrible experiments on herself and her sister. (Both of them lived, although her sister was in poorer health and died earlier.) This woman created a museum of holocaust memorials, and it was later vandalized. She started it again. I felt she was both courageous yet in some kind of denial about what she couldn’t forgive. So a struggle about forgiveness, I think, is also related to the issue of what happens when a country (or a family) is extinguished.

  4. Beth Hoffman says

    The other thing I wanted to mention more fully than I did in my previous post was what I felt about the writing desk.

    To me, the desk was a wonderful, almost whispered symbol that represented the main character’s disinterest in writing down her own truths, or even snippets of them, because they were too heavy and painful to expose. And, by leaving the desk behind, I felt the MC was trying to leave parts of her childhood behind. I don’t know if that was Thaisa’s intent, but it was a delicate part of the story that I thought was well done.

    • It’s funny…I never thought of it that way. I had trouble fitting this piece in with the rest of the story for a while, but now that you point this out and we’ve talked about the overarching struggle with truth versus lies, I can see your point and this section works better for me.

      I had noticed that she left it behind and that in doing so she did it with a particular emphasis, and I think your theory about it is astute.

    • Beth — I agree with your thoughts on this. In Frank’s novel, Heidegger’s Glasses, the characters pack a beloved item into a truck when they flee the compound; the echoing of this element in this story struck me strongly — first, the return of a theme I liked; and second, reminding me of the things we hide, literally and metaphorically, and the things we save — and how hiding/saving can be the same.

      And interesting, of course, that the narrator was a writer, but didn’t use the writing desk; yet found she couldn’t write after her mother’s death, but found her mother in her desk. Really interesting to me.

      • I like circle of that here about the writer narrator not using the writing desk and not being able to write after her mother’s death, but finding her mother in the desk. It’s almost as if a new history could be written here with the desk, not the map.

        • Possibly to pass onto the daughter back in California? That idea has symmetry and would be fittingly appropriate.

          I also wondered at bringing the son and leaving the daughter behind. For a novel that focuses more on the women and their connection to the map and it’s story, I liked the inclusion of a new male character.

        • Very interesting, Serena. Thank you.

      • I’ve always been interested the paradoxical feelings people have about the things they hide and the things they save. I’ve also always been interested in the totemic quality of objects. (I’ve always loved looking at old implements in museums—bowls, spoons, ordinary objects: they seem to emanate some of their history.)

        The way people deal with objects in their lives is very telling. It reveals how they feel about time, memory, personal history.

    • It was the intent. She also wanted to leave behind things accepted because of obligation. Thanks for this, Beth.

  5. Since we’re talking about narrators, I want to bring something else up that caught my attention: the lack of quotation marks. At first the conversations seemed off to me because of the lack of quotation marks. As I read on, though, I found that I was viewing the story as a sort of transcript of a spoken story. In my mind I could hear the narrator’s low, sultry voice. The experience was almost like I was listening to an audio book, instead of reading it, all because of the lack of quotes.

    I would love to know why the story was structured this way!

    • That’s a good question, Janel. I noted the lack of quotation marks too, but like you, I also felt like I was reading/listening to the transcript of a spoken tale. It reminded me of the oral tradition of story-telling.

      • To use quotations marks or not? Always an interesting question! I began to stop using them when I wrote because the break in which I had to type a quotation mark–the pause, typing the ” and the return to dialogue–this broke up the flow of dialogue, and the crucial element of dialogue, which isn’t what either character is saying, but the relationship between the characters. At some point the flow felt more natural to my voice.

        • So it was a conscious choice for the voice of the narration….that’s good to know. I’ve often wondered if quotation marks are necessary in stories…The Road by Cormac McCarthy doesn’t use them I believe. In some cases, I find they are needed, but in others, not so much.

          • I think it’s puzzling for writers, becuase some stories do need them far more than others. If you do a collection, it’s supposed to be consistent, so I chose not to have them because fewer of the stories needed them. In several cases, I had to move embedded dialogue to separate lines so it would be clear.

        • I think the lack of quotation marks give the whole collection a very distinctive feel. You’ve definitely established a unique voice by choosing not to use them. I am “hearing” the voice of the narrators much clearer in my mind than with other first person POV stories I’ve read.

  6. Any one else get the feeling at the beginning that the narrator was male and were surprised when they found out it was female?

    • YES — I totally did! Which is odd — normally I gender everyone as female automatically, unless I know otherwise — so I was surprised when I had the ‘oh, wait, the narrator is a she?!’ moment!

    • I thought of the voice as very feminine – without being overtly so. The distance from all the male characters – from the father to the brother – struck me a further emphasis on the female nature of the story. The male characters are remote and unknowable — from the awkward beginning with the grandfather futhered my impression of this as a possibly abused woman.

      • What people are saying about the voice is interesting. The scene with the grandfather, the interaction with Sandra Greenaway–many elements point to the narrator’s being female. Of course there’s a saying that “all writers are
        androgynous”—probably meaning that writers can inhabit both sexes. Yet I think there is a kind of androgynous personality about writing that comes through. Has anyone ever read “Annie John” by Jamaican Kincaid. If it weren’t for the title (a girl’s name) and mentioning right away that she wears dresses, I don’t think I would have known the narrator was female.

        • “Annie John” by Jamaican Kincaid sounds like a story I need to check out. I’m intrigued by this idea of androgynous narrator/personalities.

    • I felt that the narrator was female from the very beginning. Maybe it’s because, like Audra mentions, I automatically make them female in my mind, I don’t know.

  7. There seem to be a great many possibilities in the story, particularly where there are things alluded to but not expressed….like staying with her brother and the father knows why….and the deep sense of obligation with regard to the map, which gets put away for a long while, only to re-emerge.

    • I thought that she was staying with her brother because of the father’s affair, but I agree that there could be much more to that. Remember the one time the narrator fell asleep in his study, under the map, and he kissed her on the cheek? And also the memory of being spanked by him when she was little and didn’t know why.

      I couldn’t shake the feeling that mental and even physical abuse permeated the family’s history, even though there wasn’t much said about it outright. It was like the narrator and mother clung to the actual map as a sort of touchstone or even oasis from reality. The depressed mother seemed so much livelier and happy when spinning stories about the mapmaker.

      • Woah, did I miss the part about an affair the father had? I must have been half asleep rereading parts of this story. There is so much packed in here.

        Yes, that was odd…the spanking scene…came out of the blue and she didn’t even know why. I wonder if there was an abusive relationship with the narrator’s own father and mother.

        • It was with the medieval or Renaissance scholar, I forget — I just presumed the affair happened not at the family home — but perhaps that was why the narrator stayed elsewhere. Certainly, there are strong elements of deception and lies to this story — which of course, is kind of the opposite of a map, which should reveal — so the love for the map shared by the mother and daughter might be, in some ways, a kind of plea for honesty.

          • That’s interesting that you would think of the map as a sort of plea for honesty. I can see how that would fit given the current narrative flowing through the story and all the lies. But I also wonder if the map is also representative of “the other,” that life that she wished she could have had with her family — the normal life.

            I too wonder if she has that normal life now with her own children and husband.

          • That’s an interesting contrast. And if a family is a country then it’s echoed by a map. As though the map is the desired country for this family. I’ve always been fascinated by countries–including countries one can’t identify–and by maps. You’ve pulled something together for me, Audra.

          • I am fascinated by the changing of nations from one thing to another after being conquered or having fallen. I always wonder what happens to the identities of the people because clearly not all of their people are decimated if the country is extinguished. How do they adapt…do they lose all trace of that former identity and adopt a new or do they create a mesh of the two-three-four they find themselves immersed in.

          • I answered this e-mail earlier. Perhaps it wasn’t processed. In any case, if it hasn’t been processed, I will repeat, briefly, my longer answer, which is about the way memory of decimated cultures can work. Mostly I’m interested in the post-Holocaust memories, which are often denied (I’ve heard this from kids of survivors). I also am thinking of a documentary called “Forgiving Dr. Mengele,” by one of the twins on whom he performed surgical procedures (Mengele was fascinated by twins). She lives in the midwest and started a holocaust museum. Her attitude is upbeat, jaunty, but one senses that the deep memories are too painful to reveal. I wonder if it’s this way with many families, too.

        • Janel and Serena there was abuse everywhere. But I didn’t want to overplay it because there are so many stories about abuse, and I think they can come close to confessional anecdotes. For something to become a story, rather than an anecdote, you have to find the a universal element so (hopefully) readers who had very different experiences can respond. (I have to explain the difference between anecdotes and stories to students again and again–and also to myself!)

          • I think that’s true. I think from my POV, it seems like there is a larger novel at work here with this story and the others that are related to it. Have you thought about writing that novel?

      • Yes. The depressed mother loves stories and wanted to be a writer.

        • It is satisfying then that she has a daughter who becomes a writer. It makes me itch to see the mother’s full story.

          • It seems to me that when someone has died memory of that person often assumes a holographic dimension, rather than the flat, two-dimension set of memories and impressions one carries around when the “story” of that person isn’t quite finished. (Even if you’re estranged, there’s always the possibility of meeting.) So I think that would belong in the section after the mother has died, which I’m not thinking about–thanks to this. And I think that–given the character of the mother–it will be mixed and complicated. (After all, the mother tells the nurse that the daughter was Ophelia and even if she’s a little demented, it says something.)

    • I didn’t include a sibling in the earlier story. I think if I include the last piece of the story–what happens to the family after the mother’s death–I’d mention more about that.

      • It would be interesting to see these stories all collected together about this particular family.

        • I’m thinking about it now. I have so many ideas they’re almost crowding out my longer novel thanks to this discussion. Also a typo alert: Which I’m now thinking about. Not “not thinking about.”

  8. #2 really stood out to me as I read my way through the multiple parts of the story. When confronted with anything distasteful, the narrator seemed to prefer introspection and thoughts about Ninevah. It was a touchstone for imagination for her – a place untouched by family obligations, by family fighting, etc. Like when the narrator played pretend – Ninevah represented possibility outside of daily routine. The map was a tangible object that allowed for imagination for journeys outside the mundane life.

    I also noted that for a family raised by Marxists, it was interesting to see their daughter so entranced by an ancient city with a religious past. Maybe it shows a longing for a sturdier concept of belief?

    The Mapmaker seemed very speculative and introspective to me. It was short, but the narrator’s voice was strong and I found myself pretty invested in what would happen after the mother’s death. Like Anna said, the relationship between the mother and daughter stuck with me throughout. The dad seemed far more remote – the map was from her mom’s side of the family, the death of her mother makes her unable to enjoy the map anymore, etc.

    • I must have missed the part about them being Marxists somewhere. Good read…Anyone have insight on where that reference is?

      I also wonder how the dynamic of the family changed with the death of the mother, but also where the brother was for most of the story since he’s mentioned at the end.

      Thaisa, are you planning to expand this story? I personally want to know more about this family.

      • In ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’, our narrator says, after reading from The Tibetan Book of the Dead, “This wasn’t the first time I’d done this for my atheist, Marxist relatives.”

        The lack of spirituality in this family was so striking given the narrator’s obsession with Nineveh — but in some ways, I think the map — and what it represented — was the family’s faith element. The narrator had to have faith in her mother’s story — then she questioned her mother’s story — and then passed it on to her son, without her rancor — the way parents pass on their faith traditions, hopefully unsullied, to their children?

        • Thank you, Audra. I’m at work and sans my copy so I couldn’t pinpoint where it was said.

          I love your interpretation that the map was their spiritual element. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but it fits perfectly.

        • Thanks, Audra. Funny how I remembered the Tibetan Book of the Dead, but not the Marxist statement! LOL

          I like the idea of the map being a faith element.

          • The Marxism is mentioned in The Mapmaker when the mother says that the mapmaker had nothing to do with the Yemenites because they were part of a religious sect and the child knows better than to ask more. “My parents–one the daughter of a former Hassid, teh other the son of a Presbyterian theologian–were serious, careful Marxists, and it wasn’t part of their program to discuss anything holy.” It’s repeated when the child later discovers that Ninevah was once a holy city and says that these things are never discussed in the house.

        • I now see that my replies were awaiting moderation. With luck, Serena will pick the ones that seem most inclusive. The map was the faith element, although at the time I wrote The Mapmaker, I saw it as a unifying image–something that would give the subtext unity. Without knowing why, though, I resonated to Ninevah. So it’s interesting how the creative process works below the surface of the writer’s awareness.

      • Once more, I hope this isn’t a repetition. First, thanks for wanting to know more about the family. I have part of the story that begins with the father’s death, the narrator’s encounter with a sister she hasn’t seen for twenty years, and a discovery about the mother. Everything that these perceptive readers have said here convinces me that in this singular case, my instincts were correct and those of my beloved editor’s were wrong. Night Visits begins with the childhood of the narrator. It refers to abuse, and one can assume that there is more. The father and mother have terrible fights. I had wanted these stories, or novellas-in-stories to be presented in a linear fashion at the end of ENCHANTMENT. As a reviewer commented, they are a complement to the more surreal stories and give the book a kind of grounding. They also tell you a lot about the family. Meanwhile, Serena, what would you like to know?

    • To echo the above reply, Jessie, the father is remote–and this remoteness (as well as a maddening passive-aggressive quality) is present in Night Visits. In The Mapmaker, the father recedes. But there is still a story to be told about his death–one that I’ve had in mind for a while, one that includes the affair the father had that drove the mother to starvation, and an encounter with a sister the narrator hasn’t seen for years. It’s percolating.

      Thanks for what you said about the voice. And once more–you’re right about the Marxism and a search for some spiritual grounding.

      • Yes! Passive-aggressive was the word I was going for. Even with his affair, he came off as a very passive-aggressive character. With the withholding of the wedding ring supposed to be set aside for the narrator, especially. Bartering with it post mother’s death seemed very telling of the kind of man he was.

    • Jessie….I think I’ve answered a lot of your questions. I seem to be missing some of my replies….so if this is repetitive, apologies. The father is remote in The Mapmaker. But in Night Visits (the story that, in my opinion, should have come first), his remoteness comes across as maddeningly passive-aggressive.

  9. I did note that this story is incredibly dismal in atmosphere…it’s almost oppressive…and there is a great sense of obligation, which must feed into that atmosphere. It’s interesting that the narrator has a kind view of the father, but he’s rarely in the stories, though there are moments where the arguments between the parents are noted.

    That scene in the hotel with the grandfather is just disturbing and I’ve been wondering about that for a long while…is there something more telling about that scene and the relationship between the narrator’s mother and father?

    • I agree, that the scene in the hotel has stuck with me. My impressions were that the mother knew the grandfather was like this, that there was some sexual abuse in their history, but the mother chose to romanticize the relationship through her tales of the mapmaker instead of facing the abuse. To me it just felt like there was an undercurrent of something that was never spoke about.

      • Yes! I agree. I wondered about this undercurrent…why was the mother romanticizing her father…

        • YES — I wondered about that pattern of abuse — at some point our narrator mentions staying with her brother rather than her father and that her father knows why — it made me wonder if something had happened there.

          • Some of the questions are answered in the story Night Visits, and your questions convince me that (for once!) my instincts were better than my beloved editor’s. Night Visits begins when the narrator is three and charts the course of the family until she is fifteen. It’s filled with tensions between the father and the mother, the mother’s competitiveness with the daughter, and one dramatic scene of abuse, with others implied. I had wanted to have the two longer stories at the end of the book, and have the story told in a linear way. To my mind, this would have been more powerful, and things that were implied would have been more easily understood, even if they weren’t spelled out. The mother does romanticize her father, and in the scene in the hotel, the romanticization is crushed.

      • Janel….There was an undercurrent that was never spoken about, and the mother knew this about her father. I have this story in mind, too, and I have not known where it “fits,” so to speak, in the pattern of this narrative. I do have one story about this that’s floating around, looking for a place in the pattern : )

        • About your story placement, I think I would agree with you hear that a linear placement would have been more powerful. I do like these particular stories.

          Maybe “Night Visits” should be the story for October’s discussion, if we have one.

          • That would be wonderful if that could happen. This is the first time I’ve had a problem with editing. Needless to say, I had a few days of feeling very upset. But–as a writer–I find it important to ignore all the “war stories” that people have. If the book goes into a second printing, my agent has suggested the order could be changed. Hoping : )

          • I would love to do another discussion – Night Visits sounds a like a good fit. I am more than interested in this family and reading about it from another time and place appeals to me greatly – help understand the narrator, her relationships with her family, etc.

            Count me in.

        • Like Serena, I would love to read more of this family’s story!

  10. Let me first just say that the one thing I remember from this story, and it’s sad I know, is that creepy grandfather masturbating while sharing a hotel room with his granddaughter. Ew. Anyway…

    Like Audra, I never thought of families as countries with boundaries, but I can totally see that in this story.

    I was mainly struck by the mother/daughter relationship, the sadness that hung over the story from the first page. And I loved the lines on the last page about how the future generations can’t value things as highly as their predecessors because they don’t know the family history and the stories behind things.

    “At some point the map will belong to my son: Since he never met the mapmaker or heard my mother’s stories, he’ll treat it with more dispassion than I did.”

    Also, I’d wanted to subscribe to the comments, but it seems that box is missing.

    • Yes. The scene with the grandfather is indeed creepy. The child’s strength comes in an ironic way. Somehow she knows that she’s owed something for this experience and deamands that her grandfather buy her a present. When this came to me, it felt atavistic—as though she knew something about what we call the oldest profession. Reading your comment, Anna, I can see that there was a tension between family history and the need for roots–and rootlessness, personified by the family itself. The narrator has a great need to take her son to Ellis Island where the creepy grandfather first came to America and bragged that he’d learned English on the boat. She looks down at the large domed Registry Room (where the grandfather once was) and sees him reading. This is the closest she comes to a moving sense of union with the past and the present.

  11. Beth Hoffman says

    Yes, yes, yes … I believe individuals and families have their own “cultures” and oddities just as towns, cities, states and countries do. While all children need to experience a sense of magic and wonderment, I felt the main character needed the myth/fairy tale to sink into as her family was emotionally disjointed and suffered in multiple ways. The sadness and resignation in her narrative was palpable, and, like Audra said, the obligation to buy the writing desk even though she didn’t want it was very telling.

    • Hi Audra and Serena….First, thanks so much to everyone for giving this story the gift of your time. I’ll comment on both your stories here. Serena…..I’ve always been interested in fairy tales. They seem to have an arc. Reality-magic-return to reality. The magic in-between the realities can be terrible (Snow White, for example) or wonderful (the princes who get help on their quests from precious stones, old crones, fairies). They can also be absurd– (the classic tale about the couple with three wishes who want sausages, get the sausages, fight about the second wish so bitterly one wishes the sausage stuck to the other’s nose, so the only alternative for the third wish is to wish the sausage off the nose and they’re left with nothing. But whether absurd or wonderful or terrible, all fairy tales convey the sense that there are forces that there are forces from another dimension. At the very least, I think this is the dimension of the imagination and of course, as a writer, I’m very interested in how imagination interacts with what we call the “world.” Audra….I now agree that families are like countries, but never thought of it in quite that way. (Thanks for this, Serena!) And, yes, there *is* the sadness of obligation that runs through this family. A twisted sense of obligation, since it is never about the best interests of the person or even the family. I hadn’t thought about the mother’s sense of obligation, Audra. Thanks for that!

      • Thanks, Thaisa, for chiming in. I’ve taken the liberty of editing my name 🙂

        I like the idea of imagination and how it interacts with the world. This story has so much in it, and really, I guess you could say it is a novella rather than a short story — or maybe its something in between, since it is talking about the in-between here.

        • Serena…thanks for the edit! My editor says there’s a dybbuk living in my computer! I think it’s been described as a novella-in-stories, although it could also be seen as a long short story.

    • Serena’s comment about families reminds me of a scene I have always found searing in As I Lay Dying. The story starts told by the Bundren family–sad, tattered, back woods people. They’re taking the the dead mother in her coffin to Jefferson to honor her wish to be buried there. For a while, the novel, which is told in linear fashion, is only told by the Bundren family. But as they move into urban areas, other people begin to tell the story, too–educated, articulate people. It’s masterful, of course, how Faulkner managed this seamless change of voices, but what struck me as most searing and sad was how the family was seen by the world. In the beginning of the novel, one gets so immersed, it’s like being in a country. And then suddenly–one is outside the country and able to see it. As for myth and fairy tale…..I think in many ways a lot of us are sustained by various myths. Fairy tales, of course, are the first stories most children hear, and so this was part of what kept this child going. And–to jump ahead to what Jessie said about Marxism–the desire to believe in Ninevah, to have a spiritual dimension to life was crucial. The family was spiritually arid.

      • Sorry for the late replies – just not getting home from work.

        “The family was spiritually arid” – very succinct! Much better than what I tried to say in my bumbling comments. I have not read As I Lay Dying in years, but this comment has me keen to do so again.

        Also: the novella-in-short stories makes me wonder if all the short stories in the novel are about the same family?

    • Beth…I didn’t mean to leave you out of the discussion. When I wrote this, the sense of obligation was so pervasive, it didn’t occur to me. But I did know that this family gave its members a great injunction to submit.

  12. So excited to dig in and discuss this with folks! I really enjoyed this story and the vignettes/stories contained — reminded me of what I loved about Frank’s novel.

    Serena, your question 3 — Do you think that families are like countries, in that each person has their own boundaries and their own cultures that can sometimes clash and more? — is brills! I hadn’t gotten around to that kind of articulation but yes, I love that country/boundary metaphor (it rather resonates with my reading of The Bookie’s Son as well, with the narrator’s father and mother being always at odds…).

    In this story, what struck me was the sadness of obligation — our narrator being obligated to stay in the hotel with her grandfather, her having to buy that antique writing desk, her mother’s ‘obligation’ to eat or starve…


  1. […] the last discussion in October for “The Mapmaker,” Thaisa Frank mentioned that a companion set of stories was […]