By Kyler Campbell
Something as small as a fleeting mention of color has staying power in the mind of a reader. They can find the deep and subtle threads that you as the author wove into your work, but come away from the piece fixated on a small mention of a color. Shouldn’t we as writers harness even the smallest, most fleeting parts of the writing? When everything in a story is in its proper place, the writing takes a dramatic turn for the memorable and powerful. Rick Bass, in his story “The Hermit’s Story”, uses this principle when he drops small mentions of specific colors to lead the reader to an underlying meaning within the writing. In the story of two dog trainers lost in the wild, Bass not only inundates the reader with that special sort of Canadian cold (reminiscent of Jack London), but manages to show how potent small details (like the use of colors in our example) can pull a piece together and create an overall theme.
During the winters of the Canadian wilderness, the color scheme hardly varies from the snowy greys and whites that blanket the land throughout most of the year. So it’s interesting that Bass’ story, set in the upper reaches of Canada, starts with a riff on the color “blue.” Bass immediately sets up the importance of this single color “as if blue were a thing itself…creeping up fissures and cracks,” (1). The color is compared to a “scent” and the dogs outside are shown “breathing that same blue light,” (2). He shows the characters, and their dogs, wandering across a frozen lake, under the stars, “just above their heads with a shimmering cobalt light,” (12). While most would consider white the color of winter, Bass grabs the reader with an unexpected portrayal of winter’s chill, giving it a more potent resonance within the story. These soft and cold colors serve as a means not only to chill the reader, but also to set up a color contrast later on.
As the story progresses, the characters find themselves caught underneath an ice-shelf, the frozen top layer of the lake. From here, Bass draws an interesting comparison between man and nature. Throughout the story, the characters practice training dogs to hunt pheasants, utilizing nature (the dogs in this example) to their benefit. However, once they are beneath the ice shelf, the roles (man over nature) are reversed as they spend the rest of the story at the mercy of a naturally occurring phenomena (man under nature). Once this shift in position has occurred, the characters light a torch under the ice, leaving Bass to remark that “the orange blurrings of their wandering trail [were] throbbing with ice-bound, subterranean blue and orange light of moon and fire” (13). For the first time in the story Bass shows a color that does not comply with the wintery pallette from earlier. This acts as a subconscious signal to the reader that the colors are more than surface descriptions. In this case, they serve to show the “blurring” of man and nature. The reader moves from the chilly whites, blues, and glassy hues of winter, to a bright and warm orange flame. Using the contrasting hues of orange and blue, Bass juxtaposes man’s greatest invention (fire) with one of nature’s greatest phenomena (the ice shelf). The small detail of color choice gives shape to the story and carries a theme that permeates Bass’ writings: that of man and his ultimate relationship within nature.
Everything in the writing must have a place, especially the small things. Every color, name, and fleeting word must stand out and belong with a specific sense of purpose. The writer must use whatever tools to clue the reader to important meanings and scenes. Every piece the writer uses, be it colors, phrases, or images, must be in the proper place to give the writing a punch of meaning and purpose. The use of color in “The Hermit’s Story” shows a clear example of how the proper use of a seemingly small thing, like colors, can send the reader through a range of emotions and help carry the entire weight of meaning within the story.
Bass, Rick. The Hermit’s Story: Stories. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Print.