“The Pelican Bar” by Karen Joy Fowler is a short story about how survival is sometimes more important than blindly following what you believe to be true. It certainly feels like an extremely vivid dream and leaves the reader feeling like they just woke up. The story starts with Norah’s fifteenth birthday party. Norah gets gifts from all her family, including expensive clothes her mom said she was undeserving of because of her teenage insurgence. After a birthday organized by her parents who hadn’t invited her friends (for lack of knowing them), Norah’s friends, Enoch and Kayla, sneak in her room and they do shrooms together. The next morning, a strange man and woman appear and are there to take Norah away. After Norah realizes that these people are actually going to take her away and that this isn’t a threat, the people take her away. Her mom, meanwhile, returns the expensive clothes. Norah arrives at “her new home,” a motel. Outside near the fence, she meets an old woman who goes by Mama Strong. Mama Strong says that she is Norah’s mother now, except, of course, that she does not love Norah. She is then taken to Room 217, where she will sleep and live with the rest of the Power group lead by Mama Strong. There is a woman who watches the girls sleep in the corner of the room. Mama Strong gives Norah her uniform but no toothbrush because she hasn’t earned enough points for a toothbrush yet. Norah lies next to Scabbed Nose Girl, as I will call her. Norah attempts conversation but Scabbed Nose Girl does not talk. Norah cannot sleep because they never turn off the lights. The next day, Scabbed Nose Girl reports to Mama Strong that Norah talked to her and earns enough points for a hairbrush (20 points). Norah lies to Mama Strong, leaving her at negative forty points. She would have to get ten to get her toothbrush. Norah has her first group session with Power. The girls are made to write five things about themselves that are true. Norah says she is honest and that she is there by mistake. Mama Strong says that these are lies. Other girls comment, siding with Mama Strong. Then Norah earns enough points to be outside for the afternoon. After eleven months, Norah can finally write to her parents and tells them how horrible it is there and wants them to come get her. Mama Strong calls the letter dishonest and calls Norah manipulative but stamps it anyway. But the letter is truth. The food is unhealthy and rotten. Medical care is basically nonexistent. Cleanliness is not important. In group sessions, Norah is forced to reveal her darkest secrets but they aren’t deep enough, so Norah starts recounting after-school specials. Another girl realizes this and Norah is sent to the Think Again Position (TAP) room, where she must lie in one position for days on end, if she moves, the restraint of a knee is put on her. She spends two weeks there. On her 16th birthday, she gets two postcards of the beach. Her mom describes the Pelican Bar, a luxurious place located close to the motel. Norah starts to escape there in her daydreams. She realizes they are happier without her. Norah still receives letters from them, and her parents seem to have the impression that the motel is a great place. Norah knows someone on the staff is writing letters to her parents. She doesn’t mind though, because she has the Pelican Bar. Mama Strong feels like Norah has a secret and tries getting it out of Norah but she won’t let Mama Strong take the Pelican Bar, so Norah keeps getting sent to the TAP room. Norah gets her period for the first time in months but she cannot clean herself. A new girl called Chloe comes and is very mouthy. Mama Strong takes up an interest in her. One day, Mama Strong sets Norah free with fifty dollars. Norah walks miles to the shore. At the shore, she sees a man who put her in a restraint and he wishes her a happy 18th birthday, because that’s when they legally have to let the girls go. She also meets a woman who gives her a bracelet. Norah buys a ticket on a boat to go to the Pelican Bar. She stays there a while and eats half a fish. She comes back on the last boat. Mama Strong tells her not to waste her money and tells her that the world is harsh. Norah says she is not afraid. Mama Strong says it’s a beautiful world.
The chronic tension is Norah and her family’s negative relationship. It was made so through Norah’s own meaninglessly rebellious nature and her friendships with bad influences. Additionally, her parents also put strains of this relationship by sometimes either being apathetic towards Norah.
The acute tension is Norah getting sent to the camp and the hell that is further forced upon her after that. Her release from that prison is also part of the acute tension as her daydreams about the Pelican Bar.
Firstly, one of the things I tracked was concrete detail. In this piece, the concrete detail is absolutely vital. The events of this story seem too extreme for people to believe in (especially because it is, after all, a work of fiction). Therefore, the concrete detail makes it seem like it could have actually happened. One of the concrete descriptions I found particularly real were the descriptions of the light. The light is never turned off which disturbs Norah the most out of her living situation. It is described at multiple parts throughout the piece, and while most concrete detail adds a very real feeling to the story, this light feels so creepily artificial and does not fade in the stomach of the reader. Another strong detail used was the smells of the piece, especially the smells of Mama Strong. At the very beginning and during a group session, Mama Strong is described as having a very piercing onion breath. Another strong smell was in the TAP room, when Mama Strong asks Norah whether Norah belongs there. Fowler writes:
Mama Strong was smoking a small hand-rolled cigarette that smelled of cinnamon. Smoke curled from her nostrils, and her fingers were stained with tobacco or coffee or dirt or blood.
The scents used towards the end of that quote evoke grime and a filthy feeling, however the smell of cinnamon is very homey. Perhaps this was symbolic of Mama Strong being the only female figure in Norah’s life that cares about her, but anyhow, it makes it seem much more real, because to me the TAP room felt like it was in another realm but the heavy pee smells brought it back down. Another particularly unreal place was the beach. Something about it felt like it wasn’t extremely real. The swirling blue descriptions were quite concrete, but it was really the following quote that made everything feel tangible again:
It was her turn on the makeshift ladder of planks and branches and her grip on the wood suddenly anchored her.
As her grip on the wood anchored her, I too, felt anchored back into the setting. This story is a good example of just how detail can make fiction truer.
Pain and discomfort was the other element I tracked. It was used usually with the concrete detail, but it felt separate in purpose. The detail was more to ground the narrative in reality or sometimes the opposite but the pain was used increasingly throughout the story to harden the reader like how Norah is hardened over the course of this piece. Pain and discomfort are for lack of a better word, uncomfortable to address, not only in everyday life, but in fiction as well. It is weird to read and weird to have to describe, because it is what it is. Exposing the reader to this discomfort and pain increasingly builds up a growingly passive attitude towards it. At the beginning, the first signs of discomfort are the perpetual light and the stinky breath. Then things pick up with the blood during the silent kickball game. Then come the rashes and the diarrhea and the cramps and the infections and then comes the TAP room. Norah is not only subjected to the horrible pain of the knee restraint, but it subjected to boredom which according to Norah is the most painful part of the TAP. When the physical pain and the emotional pain start getting mixed up is when it starts to really deteriorate. Her parents do not care at all for Norah. This becomes mixed with the pain and bruises from repeated time in the TAP room. For me, the big turning point is when Norah menstruates. Everyone else seems so passive towards her situation that it feels only natural that the reader is a little less sympathetic than they usually would be, or at least I was. It felt like Norah was giving up and submitting to this hell. Finally, the stinging that Norah felt when she put her rashes into the ocean felt like a very new and real pain compared to the aches and bruises from before. Thus, the variations in types of pain, and the repetition of the pain itself replicates what goes on in Norah’s mind.
Another thing that I wanted to say just very quickly was that maybe the Pelican Bar wasn’t real. Maybe it was just a symbol for the afterlife or death. Maybe things had gotten so bad that Norah started fantasizing about death, the Pelican Bar, and Norah ends up dying in the story. The thing that makes me think this is that one vendor at the beach at the end of the story was also selling puppies and that doesn’t seem to fit in quite right. It seems off. I think it is very possible that Mama Strong or someone on the staff killed Norah. It is important to recall that the only time another member of Power left, there was a blood-soaked towel in the corner of the room. This feels like a clue pointing to that. However, the hopeful tone in Norah’s voice at the very end of the story makes me doubt this.
As a writer, I hope to use the element of concrete detail more often because I feel as if large chunks of some of my stories exist in a setting-less void, and I feel, personally as if I want my fiction to be more closely tied to truth. I also think pain and discomfort address parts of fiction that I would like to explore because it would be helpful for my growth as a writer. I have been less serious but I really appreciate the way it was used in this story.
Was the Pelican Bar symbolic or not? Why or why not?
Was the punishment mama strong and other group leaders enforced effective in making Norah more appreciative and grateful and what makes you think so?
Do you guys have your own Pelican Bars or recurring daydreams?