September 12, 2020: “Dreadful Young Ladies” by Kelly Barnhill

Here go, Story366!

As reported earlier, me and the older boy are training for a seafaring adventure for Scouts next year. This includes a lot of time in the water, each of us learning to be better swimmers. We’ve gone to the gym five times in the last eight days, swimming laps, adding one each day. Our hope, by next July, is that we can each complete the mile-swim test, which is thirty-two laps, or sixty-four lengths of an olympic-sized pool. We’re up to ten laps, more or less.

I say more or less because after the first day—we started with five—I started having trouble. After each lap, I’ve needed a break to catch my breath. The Karen pointed out that I changed color, turning red or even purple, while doing these laps. So, big red flag there.

What I figured out is, I wasn’t breathing. Somehow, since we last swam back in March, I changed the way I swim and was suddenly just taking short, desperate breaths on every stroke. The color change, particularly purple, suggested a lack of oxygen. I started to change my form, keeping my head above water longer, making sure to inhale deeper, to hold, release, then repeat. Immediately, it got easier. I no longer changed color. Today, I started out breathing with the first lap, and only had a minor setback on lap three when I swallowed a whole bunch of water. After I got through that, it was pretty easy. I thought about doing extra laps, but then thought better of it. So, disaster averted. Training ensues. Michael Phelps, look out.

Today I read from Kelly Barnhill‘s collection, Dreadful Young Ladies, out from Algonquin Books in 2018. Barnhill is the author of several novels, for both kids and not-kids, and is known for her blend of fantasy, sci-fi, and literary fiction. This is her first and only story collection so far, and my first exposure to her work. Here’s my take.

The first story in the book, “Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch,” is a delight. It’s about Mrs. Sorensen, a recent widow, who is all St. Francis/Snow White with the local woodland creatures. When she arrives at the church to decorate for her husband’s funeral, she’s accompanied by a cat, a dog, a raccoon, and a deer, who lend a hand with the flowers. Her town, including the local priest, are all infatuated with the lovely and uncanny Mrs. Sorensen, who is a breath of fresh air that the town has mixed feelings about. These feelings grow even more complicated when rumors of Sasquatch citings increase, many of them in and around the Sorensen property. Given her connection to wild creatures, big and small, it’s not a huge shock to anyone when the two titular characters start to appear publicly, hand in hand.

“The Dead Boy’s Last Poem” is about a young girl, obsessed with a young poet, who sadly dies young. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, for her, he leaves her his entire written catalogue, so much hand-scribed poetry it has to be delivered in a truck. Not only does she obsess over these poems, but she begins to fashion various necessities from the pages, including a facsimile of the poet himself. Young love proves fickle, however, and the girl moves on the only way that someone with so much paper can: a bonfire effigy.

The title story, “Dreadful Young Ladies,” is told in five vignettes, each one about a different young lady, who, by Barnhill’s description, are all dreadful, and for different reasons.

Fran is first up and she is watching her lover’s wife’s kid at a playground (for some reason we’re not told). Fran reminisces about the time she was talking to a boy and her sister swung on the swings so hard, she flew away, never to be seen again. Fran wishes she could make this kid do the same thing—she doesn’t like her lover’s wife’s kid—but when the kid refuses to cooperate, she devises an alternative.

Margaret has magic lips. Or maybe magic lipstick. Depending on the color she wears, different things happen to the people she kisses, even the people she’s around.

Estelle is an organized woman who doesn’t pay her taxes, but has a very good system of receipts, file folders with labels and color-coding and all. When a tax man comes calling to tell her to pay up, Estelle has a surprise for him that makes him stop bothering her.

Okay, I think you get the idea, as I don’t want to reveal all of them. But it’s a fun and devious concept, eclectic ideas formed into little stories that explore all facets of the word dreadful, adding up to quite a composite.

All writers are creative and imaginative, especially fiction writers, but Kelly Barnhill takes both monikers and run with them. There’s a magical feel to her stories in Dreadful Young Ladies, even when there’s no magic afoot, her descriptions bustling with color and life, her characters enigmatic and joyful. I really enjoyed my time with this book today and hope to read more of her work, to investigate this extraordinary collection further.

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