The New Yorker: “Shirley Temple Three” by Thomas Pierce

December 24 & 31, 2012: “Shirley Temple Three” by Thomas Pierce

I gather that Thomas Pierce is a student in the MFA program at the University of Virginia, not far from where I live. Which is neither here nor there, except that it’s quite an accomplishment to have a story in the New Yorker while still a student.

And quite a story it is, too. (It’s not behind the paywall, so you can read it for free, and while you’re there check out the Q&A with Thomas Pierce for a little background on the story.)

Here are the basics: Tommy works in Atlanta on a TV program called “Back from Extinction” on which extinct animals are brought back to life through cloning. Which is how he happens to be in a possession of a dwarf mammoth that he brings home for safekeeping at his mother’s (Mawmaw) place. He promptly disappears and Mawmaw is left to figure out how to care for the animal, which Tommy had named Shirley Temple. When Shirley gets sick, Mawmaw calls the vet, then the pastor, but nothing seems to work.

The situation is interesting and I love the characters, but because I found the ending to be unsatisfying I was really hoping the story was an excerpt from a novel. But apparently not. Tommy is a handsome, unreliable man–apparently he takes after his father, who was married to another woman and so could not marry Mawmaw–who doesn’t seem too bright. Mawmaw, though, is a survivor, and seems to genuinely care for poor old Shirley.

Read the story. What did you think of the ending?

About the author


  1. Just read it this morning. I too felt cheated by the ending. Almost to the point where I was a little angry. Like, who is this guy to try an abrupt ending like this? Kinda pretentious. It may have worked if we were afforded a page or two more of character development, more history of Mawmaw and Tommy’s interactions.
    Eh, whatever. It’s still better than anything I’ve ever written.
    On a side note, if you’re a fan of Big Bang Theory you can totally see Tommy as being Sheldon Cooper (albeit a socialized Sheldon, who is a zoologist and not a physicist) and Mawmaw as his God-fearing mother. You’ll smile a little more if you can relate.

  2. I thought this story was fantastic. For me, it has just the right amount of “realistic surrealism”.

    Mawmaw suddenly becomes stuck with bearing the responsibility for the mammoth, which parallell in a very interesting fashion the decisions she had to make with her son Tommy.

    The backstory gives us enough to know that Tommy’s father left her alone and unmarried to raise him while he provided the funds to do so. She is obviously very committed to the church, yet struggles with some of this ideology as well. A brief flashback shows us that she turned to medicine and science for an answer when she was very close to getting an abortion, but in the end, couldn’t do it. Yet, at the same time, an unmarried woman raising a child as a single parent doesn’t bode well with conservative religion, so she had no choice she could make that was ‘right’ in the eyes of the church. She chose to raise him, bear the responsibility, and stuck with it.

    Tommy seems to be a direct reflection of his father all over again, when he leaves her bound to the burden of caring for the cloned Mammoth. He has financially supported her with a house and money, but is also absent. She turns to science for an answer when she calls the vet, but can’t go through with giving the blood sample as this may lead to his discovery by others and require him to be killed as per the show’s contract. She turns to the church when the priest arrives, but he offers her no acceptable solution either (the mammoth is against God no matter how the priest looks at it). Tommy wants to kill it, but, as shown with her bailing on the abortion, she cannot allow this to happen.

    She continues to bear the burden all over again, indefinitely. The wailing happening every night synonomous with the wailing of her own unresolvable burdens that she bears each night, needing a pill to sleep.

    Finally, she opens the door to let the mammoth go free, and at the same time on a very spiritual level, she is letting her burdens go free as well. In the morning, she awakens to a peace she has never known. The mammoth is missing, just gone, without her having to bear the burden and make a choice. Tommy is gone too. She feels free.

    When Tommy arrives at the end, we can tell by his reaction that she does not want to see him either. She has also set free the burdens she carried with him.

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