Posted in Female Author, Short Story

Deal Me In, Week 10 ~ The Queen of Hearts and Swords


Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“The Queen of Hearts and Swords” by Karen Joy Fowler

Card picked: Ten of Spades

From: David Copperfield’s Beyond Imagination, ed. by David Copperfield and Janet Berliner

Review: I was a little worried going into this story. I’ve been having a bad couple days arthritis-wise and a quick skim showed a long-ish story broken into parts. Would my hands be up to holding open a mass market paperback for that long, especially if the story didn’t keep me interested? Could I justify putting it off a week and “picking” a wild card in order to read something online? Why, oh, why hadn’t I read it earlier in the week? (Because I’ve come to like my Saturday short story…and also because I’m a procrastinator.) After a bit of wavering, an Aleve, and a bottle of  Guinness, I settled in. Thankfully, this story kept me distracted enough.

The story is a fictionalization of the life of abolitionist and entrepreneur Mary Ellen Pleasant, with a dash of supernatural elements spun from her connection to Marie Laveau.

As I mentioned, it’s broken into sections, only two of them. “The Queen of Hearts and Diamonds” features Pleasant’s arrival in San Francisco, as Mrs. Smith, though the eyes of Mrs. Radford, a widow who becomes her lodger. Pleasant gains her clout within San Francisco’s society by passing as a white woman, also a widow, but young and exotically beautiful. In this section, she wins her popularity and also adds to her fortune.

Pleasant proves herself to be “The Queen of Wands and Swords” in the second section as she reverses society’s expectations of her as a black woman.

They depended on her. She also knew the most prominent families in the city. Best of all she knew her place. She could be invited to any social gathering and be counted on to send her polite regrets.

But now it was clear that too much fuss had been made over her. By giving  a party herself, she created the kind of awkward occasion San Francisco society expected her to avoid.

Through her series of parties, Mrs. Pleasant manages to fund-raise for the Underground railroad and expose the not-so-subtle hypocrisies that surround her while remaining strangely unsullied by scandal. Pleasant never lies, but that truths she does not broadcast stay eerily secret until she has use of them.

About the Author: Often, I read short stories without really paying much attention to who the author is. Karen Joy Fowler was ringing a loud bell for me, but I couldn’t place from where. Her biography in the back of the book gave me no clues. The book *is* nearly 20 years old. Had she edited one of those Best American Short Story anthologies I read in college? (She hadn’t.) A quick Wikipedia search led to an exclamation of “Oh, she wrote THAT!” That being “What I Didn’t See,” an award-winner from a while back known for being a genre/literary straddler. Searching my blog, this is at least the third story I’ve read by her. She also co-founded the Tiptree Award.


Writer, publisher. Hobbies include reading, studying magic & illusions from a historical/theoretical perspective, and playing ultimate frisbee.

10 thoughts on “Deal Me In, Week 10 ~ The Queen of Hearts and Swords

  1. Wow, I was just reading about Marie Laveau yesterday and here she pops up again! I don’t remember hearing of Mary Ellen Pleasant before, but getting to know about her with Guinness in hand seems a good way to learn. 🙂

  2. This sounds really interesting! I’m familiar with the author’s work as an editor and Tiptree founder, but I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by her. (*gives sheepish side-eye to Fowler’s book “Sarah Canary” sitting reproachfully on my bookshelf across the room*)

    I’m sorry you’re dealing with arthritis issues. I have an auto-immune condition, and arthritis is one of the central issues I deal with, so I’m with you in solidarity here. Is cold/wet weather a trouble-maker for you? (I used to love Winter, but now…not so much.)

    1. I’m so terrible at keeping track of short story writers. And I don’t even read that many short works!

      We did have a bit of a “weather” system move through this weekend. While I’m in Arizona and it’s been dry and warm, I still notice when we have fronts move through. Plus, I think PMS set off flares too.

  3. I confess I had not heard of Mary Ellen Pleasant or Marie Laveau, but they sound like interesting people to learn about. And I’d go along with the Guinness, too.

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