December 11: “In the Gathering Woods” by Adria Bernardi

Sunday’s a fun day, eh, Story366? Today is actually a bit dreary, misty and gray as a pot of mushroom soup. Karen is busy grading at home, and without any walks to take or a whole lot of energy to manufacture fun, me and the boys are spending a couple of hours at the local McDonald’s Playplace. It’s one of those days when we sort of throw away any sort of concerted effort at real parenting and just let this gigantic plastic structure entertain our children for a while. We actually took a stab at real family diversion earlier today, Karen procuring a gingerbread choo-choo train for us all to assemble, but that foray ended when we found out that we had to assemble the base pieces, latching them together with frosting, then let them sit for a few hours to dry. Later on, we’ll slather it with more frosting and attach sprinkles and gum drops and shit. For now, to give Karen some peace and quiet and me some time to write this blog, here we are:

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I know, it looks like a lot of fun, and for both my boys, 10 and 3 years old, it is. The three year old in particular can play here for two hours without even remotely wanting to leave, and trust me, when I’ve had grading and reading and Story366ing, I’ve let him. Do I wonder how often they clean the inside of these things? Yes I do. Do I think about how many kids could poop, pee, and puke up there without anyone knowing or caring for hours, days, or even weeks? Too often. Do I come here, anyway, and then wash everyone’s hands on the way out, maybe dip them in Purell, grabbing them like Achilles himself, by their still-germy ankles? Sure. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s best not to think of such things, though, especially not at the end of a semester, during finals week, when all a couple of hours of babysitting will cost me is a couple of Happy Meals. It’s good for them to build up immunity to germs, anyway, right? And from what I can picture, they’re rebuilding at breakneck speeds.

Today I had the pleasure of reading from Adria Bernardi‘s collection In the Gathering Woods, out from the University of Pittsburgh Press as a winner of their Drue Heinz Literature Prize. I think I mentioned last week when I reviewed Suzanne Greenberg’s collection that it was the last Drue Heinz winner I had on my stack, which is wrong, as I still had this one (because everyone’s keeping track of that kind of thing). In any case, I’d never read anything by Bernardi before today, so I didn’t know what to expect going in, which I always kind of like. I started with the first story in the book, the title story, and after reading it and a couple more, I’m going to stick with that title story, just because it’s a very cool story.

“In the Gathering Woods” is about a kid named Costante who lives in rural Italy in what I’m guessing is the late nineteenth century (his children grow up to be in the Great War, so that’s me doing math). At the outset of the story, Costante has finally grown old enough to accompany his grandfather, Isaia, into his woodly excursion, where he, amongst other pursuits, gathers mushrooms for the family to eat. I’ve not said this before, not this year, not ever, but this story is primarily about just that: mushroom gathering. It’s an art, it seems, to be able to identify which mushrooms are good to eat, which are poison, and which are benign, and it’s Isaia’s job to pass this knowledge down to Costante, lest he make a tragic mistake one day and kill everyone in his family.

And that very thing happens pretty often, as Isaia is as good at spinning yarns as he is picking shrooms. We hear about a guy who killed his family in this way, then hear a much more detailed account of what happened, how this guy, well meaning in every way, mistook two very similar types of mushrooms for each other and he and his family ended up dead by morning. Another kid, Costante’s age, sampled the wrong kind of mushroom, green instead of red, despite everyone begging him not to, and that kid died, too, after his dad tried to kill the poison with wine, which only spread the poison more quickly. Going into this story, I had no idea there were so many kinds of mushrooms, let alone so many that could kill you, that mushroom hunting was such a precise and stake-laden endeavor. Bernardi has taught me as well as entertained me.

The arc of the story, the basic structure, allows for a lot of diversion, which Bernardi takes advantage with an array of anecdotes, some having nothing at all to do with mushrooms (the story’s thirty-two pages long, so she has time). We get a tale of a grasshopper plague, one that ends with the shooting and killing of a really, really dumb guy by another really, really dumb guy. There’s also the tale of Napoleon Bonaparte, Costante’s great grandfather and Isaia’s father, who almost gambled away the entire family farm and house, betting, for winner-take-all, the infant Isaia, his luck fortunately turning at just the right time.

The story has a feeling of a Grimm Fairy tale, Isaia and Costante constantly venturing out into the woods, picking poisonous things, some of the anecdotes seeming a bit far-fetched. That’s the appeal here, however, this setting, the feeling that the story is taking place in a magical, far-off land when in fact it’s a very real part of the world, rural Italy. Isaia, through Bernardi, is a gifted storyteller, and I ate up this story, every twist, every turn, every delicious-sounding-but-deadly mushroom that she names. Helping all of this along is the gorgeous prose, a mix of poetic sensibility and an ear for old-world dialect.

The collection In the Gathering Woods features Italian characters spread across centuries, from the 1500s to contemporary times, many taking place in Italy, though one story I read, “Shoreline,” takes place post-World War II in Bernardi’s hometown of Highwood, Illinois,(a northern, lakefront Chicago suburb that I swear to God I’ve never heard of before) amongst its heavy Italian-American populace. I really liked that title story, how different it was from anything I’ve read this year, how engaging each of its little stories within the main story were, how seemlessly Bernardi wove them together. This was a nice find, a nice way to spend a Sunday.

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