April 11: “The Pale of Settlement” by Margot Singer

Hello, Story366 readers! Welcome to Monday of a regular week. I just finished a couple of themed weeks—AWP/Short Short Week and Books I Got at AWP Week—and will now work my way through some of the collections that having been accumulating on my desk. More than a quarter of the way through this project, I’m starting to think that if I wanted to, I could just stick with story collections for the rest of the year. There’s around seventy on my desk right now, which would put me up to 172 for the year, about halfway. Are there another 194 story collections out there, another 194 authors? I know the answer to that, and it’s yes. So, it’s something I’m starting to consider, doing 366 collections by 366 authors this year. Where does that leave all the lit mag stories I’d always thought I’d do? I’m not sure—maybe that’s for 2017 to sort out. I’m just thinking aloud here, but the idea of reading from that many books in one year, let alone that many stories, is starting to appeal to me.

In any case, Margot Singer doesn’t have to worry about, because here I am on April 11 and I’m featuring her and her collection, The Pale of Settlement, on Story366. I published one of the stories several years back in Mid-American Review, or at least the start of one, as the short “As Dawn Splits” turn into the full-length “Deir Yassen.” I’m familiar with her work, and with Margot, who came to read at Bowling Green when The Pale of Settlement came out—she’s good people. Winner of a Flannery O’Connor Award, her book’s a really tight book, made up on linked stories, stories I enjoyed very much.

Today I’m writing about the title piece, “The Pale of Settlement,” which is also the last story in the book. Aside from it and  “Deir Yassen,” I also read “Reunification.” All of the stories feature Susan as protagonist, a young Jewish woman who works as a reporter, has in-depth knowledge of her family’s history (especially in twentieth-century Europe), and is working her way through several relationships with men, some serious, some not serious, some reoccurring. Susan is, more or less, trying to settle herself in the world, which isn’t easy, because even when that place seems to be obvious, offering itself to her, she’s never sure if it’s what she wants, is reluctant to commit.

Singer employs an interesting technique/theme, weaving her character’s romantic foibles with her family history. Susan’s dating life is spotty, but to be clear, one’s not a metaphor for the other. It would be unfair for me the reader to compare the one who got away  with anything from the Holocaust. Singer’s not doing that—at no point are Susan’s choices in men paralleling her ancestors’ genocide. Susan’s family history is simply who she is, is something she carries with her. In “The Pale of Settlement,” it comes at her through stories her mother tells her as a girl. Before bedtime, instead of reading Goodnight, Moon or Harold and the Purple Crayon, her mother told her about growing up, the abuse her family endured, the abuse her family laid upon each other—a couple of her relatives were heroes and and bastards at the same time. It’s no wonder, as an adult embracing the dating scene, Susan associates everything with those tales. For her, they are not mutually exclusive.

In “The Pale of Settlement,” Susan, having grown up, is shocked that her parents love her boyfriend, James, an Irish-Australian, not a hint of Jewish blood in his veins. She’s spent most of her life (in this story, and others) being set up with various Jewish suitors, doctors, lawyers, rabbinical candidates, none of them lasting. So when James comes around and they like him, she’s not sure what to do. How does James from Down Under fit into that history, onto that tree? Things go so well, Susan almost doesn’t notice the nude photo of a woman in his apartment, a woman that, later in the story, we find out is James’ wife, who lives most of the year back in Australia with their children. Susan ends it, but like a lot of relationships in her life, Susan reunites with James, years later, unable (or unwilling) to escape her history. It’s the lesson, if any, she’s learned in her life. Or is it self-fulfilling? Nobody makes her have dinner with so many exes, so many years later.

Margot Singer is a patient storyteller, writing her stories in bits, vignettes about her characters (mostly Susan) strung together to form a complex, whole narrative. “Deir Yessen” is cut up into titled sections, and “The Pale of Settlement” uses Susan’s mother’s stories as dividers between other events in Susan’s life. The plot diagram of these pieces is no simple triangle, something more abstract, a Picasso strewn about the page, but beautiful nonetheless.

Margot Singer