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M.K. O' Brian

M.K. O' Brian lives as a hermit in a North Yorkshire cave, where he writes about the past, present and future, and hopes that humanity will survive all the madness.

Story: Bittersweet Fruit


The Author

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Arlette and Nettie Mae were born in 1906. They saw Bessie Smith sing in in 1919, the elder children were born the following year. The elder girls are seventeen years old in 1937; Emmet is almost sixteen (I hope I got that right).


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What a heart-warming tale. You get the impression that Arlette loves Nettie Mae just as much as she loved Martell. I’m no expert but I got the impression that I was being privy to an authentically described place in time and history, and sharing in the emotional ups and downs of real people. Must look up the recipe for muddy gravy. The constant singing of blues and gospel was easy to imagine, along with the fortitude and dignity of people making the most of what they had. As far as I can tell, this story does what all good historical fiction achieves – bringing history to life. I loved the way the story ends, with Arlette and Nettie Mae singing together for the first time since their youth (made me well up a little.) I only wish it had been a novel. More please!


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Arlette and Nettie Mae were born in 1919, when the 18th Amendment established prohibition, and four years before Bessie Smith would sign her first record deal at Columbia. The story begins with a memory of Arlette’s, seeing Bessie Smith sing in 1922. Following the blood oath, Martel Jr., Aleneda and Bess are born in 1923, when Arlette and Nettie Mae are fourteen years old. In the present tense, the story is set in 1937, during the latter stages of The Great Depression. Bessie Smith died from complications relating to an arm amputation on September 26 of that year. The drama takes place during the final phase of the agricultural season when the last maize crop is harvested. Arlette and Nettie Mae are thirty-one years old, young Aleneda and Bess are now fourteen, as would have been Martel Jr. The key to understanding Arlette has to that she never birthed sons who survived and tended to produce daughters, while Nettie Mae produced more sons. The greatest loss in Arlette’s life was that of Martel Jr., Emmet replaces him in Arlette’s affections and makes caring for Nettie Mae’s children worthwhile. The return of Nettie Mae presents Arlette with a dilemma, not so much concerning their past rivalry over Martel, but over the affections of her adopted children. She could easily have manipulated the years of alienation between Nettie Mae and Emmet to maintain the divide between them. In the end, Arlette is magnanimous – she decides to exclude no one, for the sake of all.


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Easons a cool dude. Jerrick does the buisness. Its all about looking after your own. Its a hard world we living in. Not everyone was a Uncle Tom back then and them Rascals was looking out for their own. Its all about protecting the family. Thats what we do every day. Shake em down.


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The background to the story is provided through Arlette’s reminiscences, the information being released slowly as we meet the family. Nicely done. I like how you know all there’s to know about Levi from his three appearances and the two short sentences he speaks. Also how the dynamics of the relationship between Arlette and her brother is adequately shown without telling, and through the use of subtle humor. I thought Arlette was going to be into corporal punishment like her Aunt, but was presently surprised when Emmet asked if she even knew where the old strap was. It put a smile on my face. Arlette’s bark is worse than her bite, but her capacity to love is limitless. This story shows the complexity of family ties at a time when many people died young. Arlette and Alaneda represent the women who strived to keep extended families together through self-sacrifice. Women like Arlette must be rare, but hopefully there will always be enough of them to hold civilized society together. ‘Bittersweet Fruit’ is like a novel condensed into a short story, very apt for a Next Author competition.


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An excellent story, moving and thought provoking. Thoroughly enjoyable read.


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A warm hearted and deeply touching story. The setting is rich in history and gives a real sense of place. The dialogue is authentic and shows that the writer has taken the time to research and apply. A well executed tale.


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"Bittersweet Fruit" is an excellent story, one which strips away the layers of pretention and avarice we encounter so often. I feel the author has cut right to the heart of what comprises the compassion and beauty humans are capable of. One of the best short stories I've read for years. Well done, M.K O'Brian - many more please!


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A good read, quite refreshingly to many other short stories. It would be good to see more writing from this author.


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A wonderfully bittersweet love story that expertly evokes the atmosphere of America's deep South, in the time of the legendary singer, Bessie Smith. Two friends, Arlette and Nettie Mae swear together that they will become blues singers like Ma Rainey and Bessie, but jealousy of their mutual lover and the raw reality of their exploited lives forces them apart, until Arlette makes a life-changing decision. Well worth reading.


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An enjoyable read that lives up to the title 'Bittersweet' both in terms of how the story plays out and also with reference to the bittersweet berries. A well written piece, set in the deep south, which really allows you to picture the scene by the use of language and narration. Well done.


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Quite theatrical and good to read, well recommended to any reader.

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December 18th, 2012
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