September 11: “Michigan City, Indiana” by Peter Orner

Good Sunday to you, Story366! Lots going on today, lots of things I can write about. I could write about the start of the NFL season, how I’m not planning on watching too much football this year because I just don’t have a lot of time for sports watching because all of it is focused on the Cubs right now.  I could also focus on the nice day that’s happening outside, how my family and I are heading out into it ASAP. But the main thing I could focus on, sort of the elephant in the room, is the fact that it’s 9/11 today.

Do I need to talk about September 11? My answer would normally be no, but then again, here I am, talking about 9/11, how it’s been fifteen years, how I couldn’t write a daily blog and mention things like Valentine’s Day, Opening Day, and the summer solstice without at least mentioning what’s on everyone’s mind today.

Should I relay my experiences on 9/11? Should I talk about the people I lost? Should I talk about the state of the world, today, fifteen years later, what lessons we learned, which we didn’t? No, as I’m sure you’ve had enough of all that already, from people with more expertise and personal tie than I have. It’s obvious that 9/11 was an incomparable American tragedy and it changed our nation, how we think about ourselves, how we conduct ourselves, forever.

My mission today was to not pick a book that had anything to do with 9/11, to tie an author and their book to today too specifically. Now, if I would have had a book on my shelf that was about 9/11—certainly, such books exist, though I can’t name any story collections—I would have definitely featured that book today. There are books set in New York, books about the military, etc., but really, I don’t have access to anything that obvious. So what I did instead was pick a book that seemingly had nothing to do with 9/11, or at least from what I can tell by looking at it, flipping through, reading the back cover. I settled on Peter Orner’s collection Esther Stories, out from Mariner Books, an entire collection that’s almost entirely set in the past, like mid-twentieth century. I figured it was pretty safe.

Esther Stories is cut up into four different sections. The first two sections feature randomly interconnected stories, while the last two each focus on a specific Jewish-American family, one based on the East Coast, the other in the Midwest. I read a story or two from each section—they’re mostly pretty short—just to get a feel for what Orner’s doing. All of the stories have a sense of nostalgia—writing the stories in past tense and setting them in the forties and fifties will do that—invoking older conflicts, older concerns, conflicts and concerns that still weigh heavily in the present. Some of the stories are set in more contemporary times, but the characters are reflecting back on things that happened to their families, in previous generations. World War II veterans talk to their grandchildren, people recall old memories, photos tell stories that are otherwise forgotten. The latter is the case for today’s selection, “Michigan City, Indiana,” a two-pager that perhaps encapsulates all of these themes better than any other.

“Michigan City, Indiana” is the lead story of the fourth section, “The Waters,” about the Burman family, the stories told in past tense from the point of view of a man looking back on a couple of generations of his family. His grandfather is Seymour, his father is Philip, and Philip’s sister, this narrator’s aunt, is Esther, as in the Esther from the collection’s title. There are other characters, other members of the family, but I’ve only read a few stories from this section, so we won’t speculate here as to what happens in the ones I didn’t.

“Michigan City, Indiana” starts with a photo, this grandson staring at a picture of his grandfather and father—Seymour and Philip (to note, at this point, we don’t have their names yet—that comes in later stories)—who are staring out at Lake Michigan in the picture. The first paragraph is a description of the actual photo, the two men standing there, what each looks like. From there, the narrator speculates as to what the men are thinking, based one what he knows about them, about the men they would become, the men he would come to know. At first, it’s Seymour pointing things out on the shore, talking about towns and sights up the coast. From there, however, we get a good sense of each of the men’s characters, or at least the perception of their characters from this younger man’s perspective.

And since this is only a two-page story, I’ll not talk about the story much more. In a way, that’s really everything, but in others, it’s not. What’s important to remember is that this is the first story of several connected stories and Orner is establishing not only some characters and a setting and an ambiance, but this perspective: No matter what happens going forward, we know this bias, this judgment coming from the teller, the grandson/son. Going into the rest of those stories, we know that this photo, this evaluation of this photo, is where all of this ends, with a man, looking back, passing judgment on the men who came before them. It’s a neat trick by Orner, almost like he’s using a frame, letting us know where we end up before we even get started.

Esther Stories is different from any other book I’ve read this year, mostly because of the setting, and I like that about it, what Peter Orner does with time, perspective, tense, and memory to tell stories about the past, to reveal what they say about the present. This is a solid collection, one I enjoyed quite a bit.

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