Happy Labor Day, Story366! On many holidays this year, I’ve picked a story that was somehow connected thematically, but as the books on my shelf run out, it’s harder and harder to find something that fits a holiday as vague and broad and unfun as Labor Day (plus, I didn’t try). As indicated yesterday, after the Cubs’ thirteen-inning game, I forfeited my right to watch today’s game in exchange for all-day family fun, which was well worth it. I assembled the hiking pack and packed a lunch and we headed up to Ha Ha Tonka State Park, about eight miles northwest of Springfield, set on the Lake of the Ozarks recreation area (lots of boating, lots of cabins, lots of trees, that kind of place). We hiked a couple of miles each way, passing a natural bridge, stopping to eat the picnic at the top of the mountain at the ruins of an old castle (yes, there are castle ruins in Missouri). Everyone tuckered out, we drove home and chilled out, ready for the week to start up again tomorrow.
Picking my book for today, I took an ironic stab at a holiday theme, choosing Joshua Harmon’s collection History of Cold Seasons (out from Dzanc Books) from the stack. At first, I thought the collection looked suited for the winter, the title being what it is and there being a depiction of a snow storm on the cover and all (a cover designed by none other than Steve Seighman, who designed Elephants back in the day). Maybe for December 21, I thought, but then the ironic angle hit me, that for a long time, Labor Day marked the end of summer, tomorrow the first day of school, which, to me, might as well have been the dead of winter. So, Joshua Harmon and his anti-summer book.
I read a few stories from History of Cold Seasons and the winter theme definitely casts a shadow over the stories inside. The book is lyrical and gorgeously styled, but the images run toward the rural (all stories are set in the New England woods), focusing on domestic issues, often concerning the extremely desperate and poor. There’s not a lot of humor in the stories that I read, but Harmon makes up for that with stark realism, matching imagery, and sentences as crisp and succinct as a Swiss stopwatch.
The story that most grabbed me is the lead story, “Rope,” a story that’s crafted in so many interesting ways, I couldn’t resist. First off, in what I can only guess is a nod to the Hitchcock movie of the same name, Harmon makes the first paragraph one long sentence, mimicking the continuous-shot effect of the movie. So, one point in the author’s favor, as that’s awesome.
The story itself is about a pair of sisters, sisters with a somewhat nasty older brother, Jaime, a brother who has apparently kidnapped a woman and has tied her to a tree in the woods, where he’s keeping her hostage (that’s what we get in that first paragraph/sentence). The fact their brother has a captive is told rather matter-of-factly—the sisters don’t tell anyone—and they spend the rest of the story wondering about her. They wonder what she eats, what she wears, what she thinks about, and where she is. Several times throughout the story, the plot takes a break and we get a paragraph of the sisters’ thoughts, containing these musings, these sections specifically poetic.
The main story chronicles the lives of these sisters as their brother is missing (with this woman in the woods, who remains unidentified) while their family is trying to get by. Their dad is unmentioned and their mom brings home a series of questionable boyfriends, including the latest, Miles, a guy with nine and a half fingers who likes to poke them with his stub and tassle with Jaime, when he’s around. Jaime also liked to teach the girls how to do bad things, like shoplift and lie, so all in all, the family dynamic is a little rough.
The story progresses along the lines of some classic macabre tales, and I won’t reveal anything else, not about Jaime, not about the girl he has tied to a tree, nor about the ending, which is as strong and powerful of an ending as I’ve read in a story. Grim stuff, for sure. Harmon employs other techniques, though, that are more than worth mentioning, such as the dual perspectives: Most of the story is told from the first person plural, using the we, meaning the two sisters, but just as often, that we breaks down into an I, the real narrator of the story, one of the sisters (who seems older), referring to herself and her sister Mindy (in third person) throughout. Not uncommon to see that in a first-plural story—ZZ Packer’s “Brownies” does it, as does Daniel Orozco’s “Orientation”—but it’s still pretty rare overall, especially when executed so well.
This being a story told from a couple of neglected kids—this is the hallmark story for the latchkey cause—“Rope” is also highly unreliable, as the girls aren’t old enough to understand what’s happening, to accurately depict the real awfulness that’s going on in their lives. What they see, and how they interpret it, is always questionable, making for an interesting premise and telling of this particular story.
So, if summer’s officially over (and it isn’t until September 21), I’ve certainly kicked off the fall with a hum-dinger of a book, a collection of New England gothic stories that are not only cold (in a good way), but so masterfully rendered, sentence by sentence, word by word (it’s not surprising that Joshua Harmon is a poet, author of two collections). History of Cold Seasons is another fine book from Dzanc, a press I hold very dear to my heart.