The New York Times’ Dan Barry wrote himself onto 1A the other day with a story about an 89-year-old woman who spent two days locked in the trunk of her own car and then crawled to safety after being dumped in a cemetery. Barry’s rendering of Margaret Smith’s ordeal was “as close to poetry as journalism gets,” Wired investigative reporter Steve Silberman posted on Facebook, echoing widespread admiration. We’ve chosen the story as our latest Notable Narrative for its restrained lyricism (“It is a cemetery for the poor, all sand and weeds, with many graves marked by pressed metal instead of stone”), details (an “overfed” cat) and relative brevity (1,239 words). Barry launched directly into narrative action with verbs that ground the reader and push the story forward (sat, appeared, directed, snatched, locked, roared) and ended with—well, just read it. In tone, the piece is reminiscent of Rick Bragg’s moving Pulitzer-winning features for the Times, particularly the one about Oseola McCarty, a laundry worker who donated her life’s savings, $150,000, to the University of Southern Mississippi. Barry, who writes the consistently strong “This Land” column for the Times, opened his story about Margaret Smith this way:
A steel-haired woman, 89 years old and an inch short of five feet, sat on a pillow in the driver’s seat of her Buick LeSabre, just thinking. Parked outside a convenience store on one of the last days of winter, she was considering a pre-Easter treat for herself: an ice cream cone. Butter pecan.
Two girls, 15 and 14, appeared at the window, calling her “Miss” and offering to pay for a ride to the other side of town. Her inclination was to say no, but her strong belief in offering kindness to strangers won out. She said yes, of course, and no need to pay her.
Uncertainty soon joined the ride, as her passengers directed her to one house, then to another, and another. Then, according to the police, they snatched her keys, causing a tussle between two girls and a small woman three times their combined ages.
Youth won out. They locked her in the trunk.
The Buick roared away with its frail owner curled up in the hold’s casketlike darkness. She was tossed about like forgotten luggage with every bump and turn. She could feel the vibrations pounding from the car radio that drowned out her calls for help. As a woman went missing, so did time, with day turning to night, night to day, day to night …