In July 2020, we published “Compound Fractures” by Alice Hatcher. Shortlisted for our Winter Short Story Award, “Compound Fractures” follows the fractured memories of a woman as she reflects on the lingering traumas of her childhood with an abusive father. Let’s take a trip into the archives.
Compelling short stories are a little bit ineffable. You can point to the elements that make the story work, like well-structured language and narrative tension, but they also possess a quality that’s a little more difficult to pick apart: They make you trust the writer and where she’s headed.
That’s how I felt when I first read “Compound Fractures” by Alice Hatcher. The reader is hooked from the first line: “At eight years old, she already has a mastery of the orthopedic lexicon.” Our interest is piqued—how and why would a child understand muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons?
One of the things I appreciate about Hatcher’s story most is its form. Although bones and their fractures persist throughout the story, this work is really about the unnamed narrator’s childhood trauma growing up with an abusive, potentially PTSD-stricken father. Hatcher structures the story in a series of quick vignettes that not only give us flashes of insight into the narrator’s past, but also progress the plot and introduce new complications along the way.
In doing so, Hatcher builds a cohesive narrative out of many fractured pieces. The entire story is worthy of study, but we’ll focus on just the beginning. If you haven’t already, read the story first, then meet back here.
Ready? Great. Let’s talk about “Compound Fractures.”
Building momentum within vignettes
The first few lines of “Compound Fractures” set the scene with our introduction to the narrator: she’s eight years old and deeply familiar with the musculoskeletal system in the human body. This knowledge might seem like a quirk of a precocious child, until we hit this line: “Her father is responsible.”
This line immediately complicates the information we’ve learned about the narrator, and it does so in a way that feels darkly foreboding: “Her father is responsible” reads like an accusation, which colors the way we read the lines that he “doesn’t trust babysitters” and “takes her to St. Anne’s Hospital when he conducts rounds or responds to emergency calls.” These lines introduce what George Saunders describes as “the feeling of new meaning coming in quickly … Things keep getting more fraught and charged and urgent within it.”
From these few lines, we learn some necessary exposition: The narrator’s father is a doctor, this is likely a single-parent household, and the narrator has had to keep herself entertained for long stretches of time. We get this last bit of information in a long stretch of evocative descriptions that function as worldbuilding: We see photographs in medical journals, the plastic models of hinge and spheroid joints, the wired human skeleton and get a sense of the narrator’s dual boredom and fascination.
It’s all a little bit morbid, but a little bit charming—until this section’s ending line: “She can identify each point of articulation between its bones, but she is most confident in her understanding of misalignments and fractures.” Again, Hatcher introduces a little bit of darkness in this moment. Note that the narrator understands broken bones the best, which introduces one of the thematic elements that persists throughout the story: the nature of broken things and how they heal.
This paragraph, as a whole, isn’t quite a scene. Rather, it’s a tightly woven expository vignette; it introduces the narrator as a child and sets up the elements that will connect the flashes to follow. And by ending with fractures, Hatcher seamlessly sets up the dog’s broken bone in the next paragraph—a choice which signals to the reader that, even though we’re going to jump around different moments in the narrator’s life, we can trust that the writer knows where she’s going. There’s a throughline here, something to ground the reader as we make these jumps, and that foundation is enough to keep the reader tracking the pieces that are important to follow: the narrator, the father, bones.
Giving the reader scaffolding
I’m using the term “vignette” here, which is a nebulous word: it describes a scene or descriptive sketch. The Gotham Writers Workshop defines it as “a snapshot or a glimpse.” Each of these paragraphs are snapshots, but they build on each other by providing new details and new complications. Take the second paragraph: Aside from the deeply disturbing image of a dog’s exposed bone, we learn that the father is the type of person who will help the dog (even though this seemingly selfless action becomes horrifically complicated later in the story), and we’re invested in what happens to the dog: Will it live or die?
The third vignette zips us ahead in time; now we’re with the narrator and her therapist. This scene captures the lingering effects of the narrator’s childhood: She “looks in the mirror and sees her face as it would appear on an x-ray film,” and she takes supplements and drinks milk, despite potential risks. Here, the reader has been asked to do a lot: We’ve jumped from exposition to an intense kitchen scene. This vignette functions as a moment of narrative reprieve, allowing the reader to adjust to the story’s form—but note that we’re still in the story’s world because Hatcher stays with the bones.
We, as writers, can ask readers to trust us, but we have to give them some scaffolding to support their journey. Hatcher is introducing a lot of information in a short amount of space, but those thematic throughlines signal to the reader that we’re heading somewhere, and all of that information matters.
I’ll jump ahead a few vignettes to highlight this brilliant line: Every moment so far has been in a close third person perspective, but the sixth vignette is quite distanced. This distance makes sense, considering we’re talking about dissociative-depersonalization disorder. We learn, “Individuals experiencing depersonalization sometimes injure themselves in order to feel ‘real.’” As a whole, this vignette is the most distanced—but it also introduces an important plot point: self-injury, and why a person does it.
On a first read, I recognized that this was a complete story, but struggled to articulate the story’s turning point; at first blush, one could argue that “Compound Fractures” is a series of memories from a woman in therapy without a definable rising action, climax, and resolution. In reality, this story builds to a quiet climax: Three months after the narrator punches a doorjamb, she “feels what others call grief.” Six months after that, she recognizes that her bones and tendons are “still healing.”
Therein lies the beauty of Hatcher’s work; like a broken bone, healing from trauma happens slowly. It isn’t something that resolves itself within a neat timeframe, and even after a bone is “healed,” it can take time for the surrounding tissues to have enough strength to function normally. There isn’t a happy ending when you’re still healing from trauma. Recovery isn’t linear.
The form of this story complements the nonlinear nature of healing from childhood trauma: the childhood memories, the frenetic anxieties, the way those memories affect the realities of everyday living (as we see in the way the narrator reacts to the surgeon overseeing her thyroid procedure). These vignettes are intentional, and all the information contained therein is intentional—and that’s what makes this story work so well.
by Rebecca Paredes