by Ethan Canin
A man's character is his character. Nonetheless, it was startling, every now and then when I looked at the sunlight falling across his bowed head, to see that Deepak Mehta, the quietest of my boys, was now an old man.
- Ethan Canin, The Palace Thief, p 205
Having recently read Ethan Canin's recent novel America America, I decided to turn to some of the short stories on which his literary fame is based. I was not disappointed with the collection entitled The Palace Thief. The stories each are beautifully written and tightly constructed. I was especially impressed with the title story, a miniature about the academic life of a history teacher, reminiscent of James Hilton's "Mr. Chips" or perhaps even closer to the world of R. F. Delderfield's novel, To Serve Them All My Days.
But unlike those novels this was a short story and it is with the focus required in a short story that Canin tells of a life dedicated to teaching. The dedication is almost to the exclusion of all other interests, but it is not sufficient to provide a moral foundation that can carry the teacher through the difficult dilemma that he faces in the story. But in addition to this I believe the title of the story also refers to the role of time, as the teacher, Mr. Hundert, finds as time as has passed him by that his life is ending with many unanswered questions. True, he had an impact on the lives of some of his students, but did he gain anything in return?