February 25: “You Should Pity Us Instead” by Amy Gustine

My intentions with Story366 are pretty vast. Primarily, I want to read a lot of stories I haven’t read before, and if I don’t have a project like this, I’m not going to be as focused and will read less. Fifty-six days into the project, I’ve probably read around a hundred and fifty stories, as I usually read two to four from every book, to get a feel of the author, to generate an idea, or just to find a story I really like. I get to expose authors to other readers, I get to learn about new writers myself, I engage myself in critical discourse, and I also get to make new friends.

On top of all that, I might once in a while spark controversy, bring up a topic that incites a discussion about, you know, an issue, something that goes beyond literary craft or storytelling. The first week of the project, I read a book called Everyone Here Has a Gun, by Lucas Southworth, and while I didn’t read a particularly gun-happy story, the title of the book and the themes within veered the discussion a bit toward gun control (albeit a small one).

Today’s story is “You Should Pity Us Instead” by Amy Gustine, from her collection You Should Pity Us Instead, out just a couple of weeks ago from Sarabande. Amy is the fifth of seven Bowling Green alum I’m covering for this theme week, and is a friend from our shared time together, Amy’s two years humping the turn of the century. She has been steadily publishing stories since, in great magazines, so it’s no surprise to see her book come out, from such a good press, and get the rave reviews that it has. Another day, another proud BG success story.

I’m not sure if there’s anything particularly controversial about “You Should Pity Us Instead,” nothing that’s going to spark a huge Comments-section debate at the end of this post. The debate and controversy live within the pages of the story, though, as the protagonist, Molly, is a staunch atheist. She’s not the kind of atheist who fights against prayer in schools or Christmas parades through the town square, those attention-seekers with a lot of time on her hands. Molly is the wife of a philosophy professor, whose latest book, The Great Cults: How Religion Warps Minds and Hearts, has just been released, earning him a position at a Midwestern university as department Chair. She shares her husband’s beliefs, and when their new community gets wind of their stance (via a scathing review in TNYTBR), they become outcasts in their intellectual but traditional community.

More importantly, Molly has two elementary-age daughters, which prompts involvement in school activities and interaction with other parents—this is where her shunning rears its ugliest head.  Moms won’t talk to Molly, won’t let their children play with her daughters, and won’t assign her to parental committees. The lone exception is the unlikeliest candidate, Elizabeth, the most conservative. i.e., Christian, of the lot; being the most Christian, Elizabeth remembers the Thou shalt not judge part of her religion, so she openly accepts Molly and her family as she would a tax collector, leper, or Democratic presidential candidate.

Gustine has a lot of fun with these strange bedfellows, as once you mix the two families—the staunch atheist intellectuals and the born-again pragmatists—anything can happen. Gustine adds an outside variable in Adoo, Elizabeth’s adopted refugee son, a boy whose entire South American village was wiped out by a cold virus upon first contact with the outside world. Where does Adoo fit in, a kid who has never heard of God, or no god, who climbs backyard trees and weaves intricate baskets from their leaves? What about Molly’s daughter Kate, who wants to go to church every Sunday with her friend, Sarah, Elizabeth’s daughter? What happens with Simon, Molly’s husband, tries to apply his logic to everyday hurdles? Gustine sets her cast well, throws them into her conceit, and then come what may. What a great story.

Almost ten years ago now, I published a story in Barrelhouse, which they reprinted online, and a Comments-section debate did ensue. Again, I’m not sure if Gustine’s story, or my post about it, will lead to that, but hey, just for fun, if you’re reading this, do me a favor and start one. It’s Thursday, and ever since the Cosby ShowFamily TiesCheersNight Court lineup stopping airing on NBC, I’ve been looking for something to carry me to TGIF.

I’ve gotten a few notes from other BG alum this week, asking to share anecdotes about the writers I’ve covered this week, a bit disappointed that I haven’t used this blog to reveal juicy details from their sordid college years. People want to know, I guess, just how much Tony Doerr likes ketchup, how much David Keaton can bench press, or how many Moscow mules Anne Valente can drink and still fire a crossbow with relative accuracy. I don’t have a particularly scathing story about Amy Gustine, though I remember she was the only student who went with Karen and I to AWP in Palm Springs in 2000, how she was a pleasant traveling companion, and how when she lost her wallet, had to sell her wedding ring and some plasma at the airport to pay to ship her books home (she bought a lot of books). It’s truly wonderful to see that her brand of resourcefulness and humanity has resulted in such an amazing debut. You Should Pity Us Instead is an early frontrunner for one of the best collections of the year, so I recommend you check it out pronto.


Amy Gustine