“Unnatural Habitats” by Angela Mitchell

Happy Friday, Story366! Today marks the first post I’ve made in a while that wasn’t prompted by something or other, or didn’t present an immediate theme. In late October, I wrote about Donald Quist’s new book the day he visited Missouri State and gave a reading. A couple of weeks ago, I did a Halloween post on Sarah Layden, which didn’t turn out to be all that scary, though it felt like I could say it was the thought that counts. Then, earlier this week, on Veteran’s Day, I wrote about Will Mackin, which was serendipitous, as I just wanted to do a post and Will Mackin just happened to be a vet. Today, though, I again wanted to get a post up, and I’ve wanted to read Angela Mitchell‘s book for a while. If today is Bobcat Day or something, then I’ve lucked onto it again. Otherwise, this is just a normal post on a pretty normal Friday. With the holidays looming in less than a week (!), I’ll take normal.

There is a bit of a homer quality to Mitchell’s work, as she is a Missouri writer, and more specifically, an Ozarks writer, from Southern Missouri, where she still owns a farm. I’ve known about her and her stories for a while and am glad that WTAW Press put Unnatural Habitats out this fall. Other than the writers I know and work with here in Springfield, there’s not a ton of Ozarks writers with whom I’m familiar, other than Daniel Woodrell, who’s the guy, the writer everyone associates with the region. I know they’re out there and working in a lot of different genres, but it’s nice to read Mitchell’s stories, see the references to Branson and Silver Dollar City and so forth. Who doesn’t like familiarity? I know I do, so reading these stories felt comfortable to me, like I knew the people and places as I stumbled across them.

Mitchell writes longer stories, so there’s only six in the book, and at least three of them involve Gary. Gary, however, seems to fit as secondary character in these pieces, the stories told from other points of view. Because I like to read the title story when there is one, I started with the forty-something-page “Unnatural Habitats” first, which is also the last story—this means I got earlier Gary adventures, depicted in earlier stories, in backstory. I went back and read “Retreat,” an earlier Gary tale, which was kind of like watching the Star Wars prequels, knowing Anakin is going to become Darth Vader, no matter what happens in Episode II. But, I’ve had this happen before and soldiered through. Plus, I did enjoy reading about Gary in retrospect, even knowing what was coming. Mitchell’s a good story writer and it’s not like the specific hows and whys weren’t interesting—they were.

I’m still writing about “Unnatural Habitats,” though, because it’s the title story, I like it best of the stories I’ve read, and it seems like it really hits on the theme of unnatural habitats. “Unnatural Habitats” is the story of Layton Vines, this recently well-to-do, almost-middle-aged guy living in a lush new subdivision in Northern Arkansas. He, his wife, Sheila, his son, Elijah, and a few other unnamed kids live in a house so big, they can all have a giant TV and couch and room to themselves without ever meeting each other. In fact, Layton doesn’t seem to run into his family much at all, which is the only thing he likes about his giant house, not its extravagance really to his taste—this is the first indication of the theme, unnatural habitats, as Layton doesn’t like where he lives, doesn’t belong. He’s basically an old hillbilly—though he pointedly denies it—out of his element, but needed something to put his money into, somewhere to put his indeterminably large family.

Along with his family, Layton houses Bobbie, a bobcat that one morning gets out of its cage and wanders over to the neighbors’. This causes Layton stress, as he has to not only go fetch Bobbie from under their pool deck chair, but he also has to explain why he has a bobcat. We find out that it’s Gary’s, but Mitchell doesn’t let on to who Gary is yet, or why Layton has his bobcat. That’s a good move, as that rate of reveal kept me into the story, kept me wondering (of course, if I’d read the stories in order, I’d know; still, the story should stand alone and has, as it was published in storySouth a while back). Layton eases Bobbie back into the bobcat cage inside the house—no small task, Layton covered in scratches and piss—but has to deal with the aftereffects. The neighbors call Animal Control, leading to threats of the animal’s removal and destruction. Sheila does not let up on Layton over the next few weeks, urging him to take care of the Bobbie situation, and it’s enough to drive Layton askew.

Dealing with Bobbie is the main plot of “Unnatural Habitats,” but since it’s a long story, there’s a lot of good character development along the way. Elijah seems like a typical troubled teen, sneaking out at night, making a mess, sneaking girls in, that sort of thing, and Layton realizes his relationship with his oldest is nil. He and Sheila bicker a lot, but it seems like that’s just what they do, so there’s never really a threat of divorce, just a steady dose of tension. Various kids pop up and Mitchell never names them—on purpose, for sure—and one could wager Layton might fail a quiz if it asked him to list their full names and birth dates.

Mitchell also weaves in a lot of Layton’s backstory, what she wrote out in previous stories. We slowly find out who Gary is: Layton’s former insurance company partner. We find out from where Layton got Bobbie: From Gary, who collected exotic pets. We’re told how Layton got rich: He sells cocaine, using the insurance business as a cover and laundry service. Finally, we find out what happened to Gary and why Layton has Bobbie: A while ago, Layton was sleeping with another man’s wife and the other man beat him nearly to death; it may have also been a drug deal gone bad—Layton has a lot of theories and a lot of enemies. Eventually, Layton came to suspect Gary and hires a new insurance partner to help him “fire” Gary, in other words, go to Gary’s and beat him nearly to death. Later on, to add insult to injury, Layton steals Bobbie, claiming the cat as a sort of trophy.

This is all that really ties Layton to Bobbie, but eventually, Sheila’s nagging and continued threats from Animal Control give a distaste for Bobbie in Layton’s mouth. He decides the best place to put Bobbie is back in Gary’s house, despite the fact Gary has long since disappeared and his house has been abandoned for several years. Layton drafts Elijah for the task and the two cajole Bobbie into the travel cage and head out across Arkansas. This gives the two, and Mitchell, time to deal with the father-son issues; we also find out that Layton has similar issues with his dad, from whom he’s been estranged for a while. I won’t go into what happens from here, though, when the pair get’s to Gary’s, as that would be revealing too much. I’ll note that it’s a surprising, satisfying ending to this long tale—Layton’s chance at stardom—and I feel as if the story of Layton has been told and told well.

Overall, I liked everything I read in Unnatural Habitats, following these kind-of-kooky characters as they make their way through their lives, facing hurdles, obstacles often caused by their own faulty decision making. That type of complexity of character always makes for a good read. As stated earlier, I also enjoyed the Ozarks setting and local references, making me think how Gary and Layton and the rest of these assorted characters help define the Ozarks and its literature. I tried to remember that Mitchell is writing fiction, that her depictions happen in the Ozarks, how people like Gary and Layton are around, but aren’t the norm, just like most people aren’t the meth-cooking, squirrel-hunting tragedies they seem to be in Winter’s Bone. I like how the theme of the title is played out, too, characters often finding themselves in a place they don’t recognize, a place they don’t belong. I enjoyed the time I spent with Unnatural Habitats today, am glad to see Angela Mitchell and her stories emerge.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s