January 18, 2020: “The Smallest Cousin” by Christian Felt

Good evening, Story366! Glad to be writing another post today.

My Saturday started with an Eagle Scout Court of Honor, which if you don’t know, is a ceremony where a Scout receives his Eagle Scout badge. The kid who got this award has been a model Scout since I’ve been involved with this organization, a true inspiration, and an all-around good guy. He’s the third son in this family to earn this honor and the seventh boy from our Troop in the last year. There was a long, touching ceremony with his family, friends, leaders, and fellow Scouts. Good for this kid.

My oldest boy took part in the proceedings today, as did a lot of the other Scouts in the Troop, showing their support for their friend. With these seven boys finishing—”Eagling out”—and another due later this month, my son has suddenly become one of the older and highest-ranked Scouts left in the Troop. He’s been in for three years and is only 13, but if he works hard, he could probably earn his Eagle within a year, if not sooner. That would be a major accomplishment and honor for him and our family (I never finished, but my oldest brother did). My son has dedicated himself so far—three years in Scouts BSA (formerly Boy Scouts) and five years in Cub Scouts. He’s learned a lot, gained a ton of confidence, and has had experiences he never would have had otherwise. We’ve spelunked, paddle-boarded, backpacked, and sculpted, and that’s just in the past six months. Scouting is not a perfect organization—revelations of all the sex abuse scandals have been particularly sobering—but Scouting has been good for him. I’m glad that I’ve been along for the ride, to protect him, to guide him, and join in on the overwhelmingly positive aspects we’ve experienced. Stay tuned: Maybe by the end of this year, I’ll be writing about his Eagle Court of Honor, too.

Last night, I read a good hunk of Christian Felt‘s debut 2018 collection The Lightning Jar, winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award from the University of Iowa Press. Like Kate Wisel’s book yesterday and Siel Ju’s book last week, The Lightning Jar is a collection of linked stories. What makes Felt’s book distinct from those two is that his book has two different story sequences in it, which don’t seem to ever relate (though I kept thinking that they would eventually converge; I was wrong). The first sequence is about two children, Amanda and Karl, on vacation at the Lake with their mother. The second sequence is about a kid named Mons. I read all of the stories in the Amanda/Karl line, then got to the Mons stories, wasn’t sure who Mons was, or why Amanda and Karl disappeared. I skimmed through the stories after that, looking for the two original kids, but didn’t find them. I’m well versed in Amanda and Karl. Mons? I barely knew thee.

“The Smallest Cousin” is the first story in the book, thus kicking off the Amanda/Karl stories. Amanda and Karl are off at the Lake with their mom, who pretty much lets them have the run of the place, filling their days how they choose. They run into the Locals (who are the locals), the Knudsens—kids from another family also summering at the Lake—and characters with archetypal monikers like the Gypsy, the Doctor, and the Guest. We meet all of those people in later stories, though: In “The Smallest Cousin,” we simply meet Amanda and Karl’s cousins, about a dozen of them, who spend a few days with our family at the Lake. The cousins take up a lot of space, are noisy, and try to play the kids’ games by new, self-serving rules. This drives Amanda crazy. Bugging Karl is the youngest and smallest cousin, who is sleeps under Karl’s bed during persistent storms. When he’s too scared to even hide under there, Karl lets him sleep up with him, which seems cute, but both original kids will be glad when their cousins depart and the Lake is all theirs once again.

Before this happens, though, Karl gets the idea in his head that he’d like to capture some lightning in a jar—hey, that’s the book’s title!—as it would be cool to have a jar of lightning, something he could use to read by, or just to have. Good thing for him the storms have been heavy with lightning and thunder. Karl takes as many jars as he can find and places them on the beach.

“The Smallest Cousin” isn’t a long story, so I don’t want to give too much away. I’ll say this: The smallest cousin and this jar of lightning eventually … intersect. By the end of the story, the situation has definitely changed, in a significant and magical sort of way.

The second story in the book, “The Lightning’s Ghost,” picks up right after the first, and so and so on, until this cousin/lightning jar plot line is figured out … or at least reaches its zenith. It’s a story sequence that feels a lot like a fairy tale, though maybe not specifically a fairy tale. It might be a fable. It might be magical realism. It might be the imagination of children with a lot of time on their hands and nobody keeping them in check. These kids, off having adventures by the Lake, in the woods, running into Doctors and Guests and such, feels like kids from British children’s stories, The Chronicles of NarniaMary Poppins, Peter Pan, and those kids in the Peter Pan-inspiring Finding Neverland. The setting is non temporal, maybe in the late 1900s, maybe in the 1950s, maybe today. Felt also cultivates an ambience of magic with his descriptions and language; dolls have conversations, ghosts haunt, and lightning whirs around in jars. Even the use of nondescript, initially capped words like “Doctor” and “Book” lend an air of wonder, sparking its own, unique lyricism.

In The Lightning Jar, Christian Felt creates a world—worlds—where he can make his own rules, where stories can be and are anything and everything. I had a lot of fun reading this book, seeing Felt build on his adventures, story after story, offering up his own brand of wonderland.