I haven’t read all of Padgett Powell’s short stories, but I’ve read enough to know that “The Winnowing of Mrs. Schuping” is my favorite of his stories. The first paragraph alone is worth the price of the book, the 1991 collection, Typical. The story setting is contemporary, yet the reference to the eighteenth century oaks immediately pulls us into another time.
Mrs. Schuping lived on a moribund estate that had once been grand enough in trees alone that a shipbuilder scouting live oaks in the eighteenth century had bought the tract for wood to make warships for the British Navy. Oak of that sort, when fitted into six-inch walls, would not merely withstand or absorb cannonballs but repel them a good way toward their source. Mrs. Schuping did not know this, but she had big old trees, and she patted their flanks when she strolled the grounds.