February 24: “By Light We Knew Our Names” by Anne Valente

Welcome to day four of my all-Bowling Green alum week. It’s been sort of a class reunion, as so many people have contacted me, having seen the posts, dropped a hello, shared some stories from Northwest Ohio. I listed a bunch of writers on yesterday’s blog and have been reminded, informed of, several that I missed. I’ll do another BG week later in the year, if not two, as I’ll certainly have the material. There’s been a nice spike in hits this week on my Stats page, too, so it seems like there’s interest, even if it’s from a very specific demographic.

Today’s BG alum is Anne Valente, a student I knew well in our shared time there, Anne working as a staff member and eventual graduate assistant for Mid-American Review while I was Editor. She was a part of a very talented class of fiction writers that included, among others, Matt Bell, and it was pretty clear that she had what it took to realize a career as a writer. Valente published By Light We Knew Our Names in 2014, while HarperCollins will release her debut novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, in 2017. She has stories published everywhere, and because she’s from St. Louis, I’ll be able to bring her in to read at Missouri State via our Missouri Authors Series.

I’m feeling very encyclopedic so far today, not a lot of wit going into my entry. It’s probably because the story of the moment, “By Light We Knew Our Names,” isn’t one that inspires funny. The title story of Valente’s collection, it’s the best story I’ve read in the book, but also the most heartbreaking. Other pieces are full menace, disappointment, and the call for hope, but “By Light We Knew Our names” takes everything to another level of gravity and intensity, buffered by beautiful prose, great characterization, and a really interesting setting.

The protagonist of “By Light We Knew Our Names” is Teal, one of four girls who live in the northern Alaska town of Willow, as close to nowhere you can get without actually being in Canada (OK, that was a little stab at funny). The girls live a pretty bleak life, going to high school, a dim outlook for after, but they’re not at all worried about prom, graduation, or college. All four girls, at one point in the story, experience savage beatings from family, rape from men in the town, or both. Each night, when the abusers have passed out in front of their TVs, they sneak out, convene at the bluffs, where they take their anger, fear, and frustration on pillow cases stuffed with hay. They rage, they cry, dream of escape, and plot impossible actions. Every day, every scene, worsens the girls’ conditions, another violent, unthinkable justice done upon them. Eventually, a pattern like this leads to some great revenge, some climactic eruption, a violent act, a regretful choice, a failed attempt to recover what’s been taken. Right? Valente could have gone in so many obvious directions, satisfied the urge for vengeance. To see what she does, how she resolves such a deeply saddening premise, you’ll have to read the story, but here’s a hint: I think this is a fantastic story, the ending a perfect stroke of Valente’s vision.

Valente sets her story in Alaska, and as the title indicates, the girls’ nightly convenings take place under the Aurora Borealis. They know the Aurora Borealis like Orlando kids know Disneyworld or Flagstaff kids know the Grand Canyon. The constant, constantly changing lights offer a metaphor or two for the characters’ predicaments, though I’m not exactly sure which one I’d settle on, if I had to choose in a multiple choice test. Are the lights the rage the girls feel? Are the girls the shining lights on the dark landscape? Whichever one you want to go with, it makes for a great-looking cover image (though I doubt this is why Valente chose it—if so, maybe I’ll set my next book at a convergence of rainbows over a waterfall).

At one point in “By Light We Knew Our Names,” one of the girls jokes that Teal should study to become an astronaut, and all the girl laugh at that notion, that a girl from where they are could become something like that. This tragic moment sums up the story, these young ladies’ lives, the ridiculousness of hope, of escape, let alone something as ambitious as being an astronaut. It reminds of of what abuse does, aside from the physical, the mental repercussions that bruise deeper, swell longer.

I was able to squeeze one Canada joke and one self-effacing rainbow joke into today’s post, but the material just doesn’t line up with zany rewritings, oddball predictions, or a light tone in general. This isn’t to say that every story in Anne Valente’s collection is a sad investigation into humans at their worst. A lot of her stories are upbeat, sanguine, even magical. I’m so proud of her for all her success, and can’t wait for her debut novel to drop next year, to be able to host her here in Springfield and introduce her work to my students.

Anne Valente




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